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 (10)
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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.

    Aleyda

  • 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.

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