The Bialetti Moka Express: The History of Italy’s Iconic Coffee Maker, and How to Use It the Right Way

I am sure that many an Open Cul­ture read­er has a Bialet­ti Moka Express in their kitchen. I know I do, but I must add that I knew lit­tle about its his­to­ry and appar­ent­ly even less about how to prop­er­ly use one. Cof­fee expert and author of The World Atlas of Cof­fee James Hoff­mann intro­duces us to the appli­ance we think we know in the above video.

Alfon­so Bialet­ti didn’t orig­i­nal­ly get into the cof­fee busi­ness. In 1919, the Bialet­ti com­pa­ny was an alu­minum man­u­fac­tur­er, with the Moka Express invent­ed some­where around 1933 by Lui­gi de Pon­ti, who worked for the com­pa­ny. Accord­ing to Decon­struct­ing Prod­uct Design by William Lid­well and Ger­ry Man­casa, the inspi­ra­tion came from Bialetti’s wife’s old-fash­ioned wash­ing machine: “a fire, a buck­et, and a lid with a tube com­ing out of it. The buck­et was filled with soapy water, sealed with the lid, and then brought to a boil over the fire, at which point the vapor­ized soapy water was pushed up through the tube and expelled on to the laun­dry.”

As Hoff­mann shows, ear­li­er cof­fee-mak­ers did use steam and a drip tech­nique, but the Moka Express was the first all-in-one mak­er that could sit on the stove top and do the work. All the user has to lis­ten for was the tell-tale gur­gle when it fin­ish­es brew­ing.

In 1945, Alfonso’s son Rena­to returned from a pris­on­er-of-war camp and took over the fam­i­ly busi­ness. He was instru­men­tal in focus­ing on the Moka Express and turn­ing it into an inter­na­tion­al cof­fee brand. He hired car­toon­ist Paul Cam­pani to design l’omino coi baf­fi, “the mus­ta­chioed lit­tle man” whose image is on the side of every Moka Express, and dur­ing the 1950s was in a series of humor­ous ani­mat­ed com­mer­cials. Bialet­ti was the pride of Italy, and for Ital­ian immi­grants liv­ing abroad, it was a trea­sured object in the kitchen.

Such was the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Rena­to Bialet­ti with the Moka Express that when he died in 2016, his ash­es were interred in a giant repli­ca pot. Hoff­mann details the fate of the com­pa­ny after­wards, how it has fared against com­peti­tors in Italy and out­side. Will it still be around in decades? Who knows. But it does make a great cup of cof­fee.

And he shows the cor­rect way to brew a cup with the Moka Express in this oth­er video. Here’s a few things I was doing wrong: not using hot water in the bot­tom to start; try­ing to pack in the ground cof­fee like I was mak­ing an espres­so. (Note: a Moka Express cof­fee is some­where between an espres­so and a pour-over.) Using too fine a grind; and not cool­ing the bot­tom as soon as it’s done work­ing its mag­ic. (All these tips I’m going to try tomor­row morn­ing.) Maybe you have been mak­ing your Bialet­ti cup the right way all along. Let me know in the com­ments. I’ll read them over a fresh­ly brewed cup.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Life and Death of an Espres­so Shot in Super Slow Motion

How to Make the World’s Small­est Cup of Cof­fee, from Just One Cof­fee Bean

The Birth of Espres­so: How the Cof­fee Shots The Fuel Our Mod­ern Life Were Invent­ed

An Espres­so Mak­er Made in Le Corbusier’s Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­tur­al Style: Raw Con­crete on the Out­side, High-End Parts on the Inside

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (11)
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  • Anita says:

    When my daugh­ter was no more than 3 years old she was invit­ed to dine with my then 87 year old grandmother.Dinner end­ed and there is this beau­ti­ful child bare­ly able to walk up from the base­ment with a black cof­fee mus­tache! She would dunk a cook­ie into fresh­ly brewed espres­so cof­fee made by Non­na. What a treat.
    Fast for­ward to her now all grown up and as a gift to her and her hub­by I bought them a Moka pot . The expres­sion on her face was price­less as she sipped that deli­cious brew and mem­o­ries of din­ner with Non­na came flood­ing back.
    I too have a Moka and as I child din­ner always end­ed with black cof­fee but now we have in our home a new gen­er­a­tion of Moka cof­fee lovers.
    Sincerely,Anita and daugh­ter Car­a­lynn
    P.S. their pot was brought to Bonaire where they reside part time.
    And because of their Moka pot those mem­o­ries will fol­low them always.

  • Delia Maria Saboya says:

    I loved the video! Very inter­est­ing! I was born in Cuba and I been using this cof­fee pot for­ev­er. I came to Chica­go in 1967 at 3 year old so it was a rou­tine in my house every morn­ing and around 5pm to make cof­fee. When I was able to reach the stove safe­ly it was my job to make the cof­fee. But been­ing Cuban we add the sug­ar the water and nev­er hot water to start it. As time went by I felt that adding sug­ar just made it hard to clean so I stopped. Then in 90’s with all the talk of cof­fee and star­buck open­ing in every cor­ner I bought one of their cof­fee mak­er like had for true e Expres­so
    Mak­er. Well that was the biggest mis­take. My cof­fee nev­er taste good. Taste more like Burnt cof­fee like Star­bucks makes it. Pull out my favorite cof­fee pot again and nev­er looked back. I have the baby one the moth­er one and papa one for big par­ty’s. I give them as gift and every­one loves them. I nev­er pour hot water in the pot but am going to try it today. I would like to win the book but don’t know where to click! Thank you Delia

  • P.D. says:

    In our cur­rent house, we have an induc­tion cook top. Great over­all, but does­n’t work with the moka express. We still have our old express in the cab­i­net, though.

  • Salvidor says:

    I have a small gas stove, just to use with my Bialet­tis !

  • Mrs B. D'Souza says:

    There us an induc­tion ver­sion avail­able. If not, buy a ‘dif­fuser’ to put under your pot.

  • JenniferObrien says:

    hi.… Hel­lo

  • just me says:

    There are moka express induc­tion cook top ready already.. :) just google it! I use one and it is just cof­feestas­tic :)

  • Wendy says:

    Real­ly inter­est­ing videos. I learned some new things. I’ve always used an espres­so grind. I’ll try a slight­ly coars­er grind from now one. I’ve always used hot water, but nev­er thought to cool the pot after it’s done its thing to stop it con­tin­u­ing to cook.

    I have sev­er­al dif­fer­ent sized Bialet­ti pots. The only issue with them is find­ing replace­ment gas­kets some­times. The pots nev­er wear out and make con­sis­tent morn­ing cof­fee.

  • Aleyda mafotim Ali says:

    I apol­o­gize I have no com­ment. My hus­band seems to think we may be able to make great use of it. Thank you.


  • Ric says:

    My wife is of Ital­ian descent so, yes, we have three of four of these stove­tops in dif­fer­ent sizes, most­ly Bialet­ti.

    I’ve always usu­al­ly put in hot water, but because it saves time brew­ing up., rather than to min­i­mize any bit­ter­ness — that’s what the sugar’s for.

  • Vittoria Kerry says:

    Hi my father is Ital­ian so always a cof­fee pot on the stove. A few years ago I pur­chased a mas­sive bialet­ti cof­fee pot as a gift for my dad. I assume it was an adver­tise­ment dis­play piece. I’ve nev­er seen one since and have searched on line for one. Just won­der­ing if you know where or who would have made it?
    Many thanks

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