Which coffee maker is most deeply embedded in American culture? I would nominate the humble Mr. Coffee, a device referenced on Cheers as well as Seinfeld, in the work of Raymond Carver as well as that of the Bloodhound Gang (to say nothing of the 1970s mass-media phenomenon that was its commercials starring Joe DiMaggio). But I would also urge my fellow Americans to ask themselves when last they actually used one, or at least used one to satisfying results. Italy, by contrast, knows what it is to take a coffee maker to heart. As one study found, nine out of ten Italian households possesses, in one form or another, the same basic model: the Bialetti Moka Express.
As Ted Mills wrote here with confidence last month, “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.” Enter coffee Youtuber and The World Atlas of Coffee author James Hoffmann, whose introductory video proved popular enough to launch a mini-series that takes a deep dive into the mechanics and variations on the nearly 90-year-old “moka pot.”
In the second episode, just above, Hoffman performs a series of experiments varying elements of the simple device — starting temperature, grind size, heat power — in order to determine how it makes the best cup of coffee.
In episode three, Hoffman (who clearly knows a thing or two about not just coffee, but how to name a Youtube video to algorithmic advantage) refines “the ultimate moka pot technique.” Much depends, of course, on factors like what sort of beans you buy, as well as subjective considerations like how you want your coffee to taste — your preferred “flavor profile,” as they now say. The longtime moka pot user will inevitably feel his/her way to his/her own idiosyncratic procedure and set of accessories, and will more than likely also accrue a formidable collection of moka pots themselves. Here Hoffman lines up ten of them, half of which are just different sizes of the classic Moka Express, its silhouette recognizable at any scale.
Less familiar models take center stage in the fourth episode, “The Moka Pot Variations.” In it Hoffman puts to the test the Bialetti’s double-cream espresso-making Brikka; their cappuccino-capable Mukka; the tiny, discontinued Cuor di Moka, with its correspondingly avid fan base; and finally something called the Kamira, which looks less like a coffee maker than a piece of recycled industrial art. Even apart from these, a variety of companies now make a variety of moka pots, every single one of which has no doubt at least a few serious coffee drinkers swearing by it. I myself have a weakness for Bialetti’s Moka Alpina; whether it makes a superior brew I couldn’t say, but the jauntiness of that Tyrolean feather is hardly debatable.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.