How the Moka Pot Stood the Test of Time - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How the Moka Pot Stood the Test of Time

In the convenience-driven era of a Starbucks on every corner and Nespresso in every office breakroom, there’s a merit to slowing down and creating your own personal coffee ritual. From the steamy warmth to the roasty aroma, brewing coffee can be a sensory and self-reflective practice—a dedicated moment of self-care before the day unfolds.

To this ethos, there’s perhaps no coffee-making tool as philosophically aligned as the Italian-made, pressure-driven moka pot. Its method is relatively straightforward: Fill the bottom chamber with water, add fine-ground coffee, heat the pot on a stovetop, and slowly percolate a bold coffee that sips somewhere between espresso and drip.

The nostalgia-fueled resurgence of the moka pot’s popularity in recent years belies its old age: This year, the device celebrated the 88th anniversary of its creation. The original octagonal design, called the Moka Express, was invented in 1933 at a watershed moment in Italian history, following the rise of fascism around 1922 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Up until then, coffee had been brewed primarily via large commercial machines, and served in communal settings like restaurants and cafés, which also functioned as social hubs for news and current discourse. The introduction of the lightweight, portable moka pot—coinciding with the widespread economic trouble—would ultimately democratize affordable coffee-making for domestic kitchens, ushering in the home-brewing pattern that continues today.

Nearly 90 years later, and despite numerous revolutions in both technology and coffee culture, the moka pot is still ubiquitous—these days, “moka pot” refers to an entire category of devices, though the original Moka Express sold by Bialetti remains a favorite. A 2016 survey found that 90 percent of Italian homes have a moka pot, and it’s particularly celebrated in Southern Italy. You may also hear it referred to as a cafetera in Miami, where it’s the preferred brewing device for the classic café Cubano—a Cuban coffee drink that tops the rich brew with a creamy crown of foam, or espuma. Also popular in Mexico and Argentina, the moka pot has become an evocative symbol claimed by many cultures.

Despite being a relatively simple device, the moka pot has a staying power that suggests a legacy that is culinary, but also more broadly cultural. From a design perspective, it’s a living relic of Italy’s iconic, avant-garde Futurist movement. And it remains to this day more common in home environments—the slow brew and lack of precision make it ideal for a more meditative and perhaps rustic outlook on coffee that harkens to the nostalgia of an earlier time.

Indeed, to tell the history of the moka pot is to tell the history of modern Italy—and of coffee itself. The moka pot’s appeal is inherently antithetical to the typical American style of drinking coffee. While Americans largely prefer to sip mid-strength drip coffee over time, for a gradual buzz, Italians pursue an instant jolt of energy: Ordering “un caffè” in Italy will by default yield a nice, concentrated shot of espresso. (Hence, ordering an “Americano” will get you the same thing, just diluted.) Employing high heat to extract the nutty, roasty flavors of a (preferably) dark roast, moka pots create coffee synonymous with quintessential Italian taste and culture—brewed over enough time to have a quality conversation.

Italy first lifted coffee—and coffee-brewing methods—from its distant neighbors in West Asia as early as the 17th century. But for hundreds of years, coffee preparation remained the way it had been seen in Turkey: by thrice-boiling water and coffee in a metal pot called an ibrik. It wasn’t until the Second Industrial Revolution going into the early 20th century that steam pressure became standardized in consumer products. In 1906, the first patent for a commercial espresso machine was awarded to an Italian inventor named Desiderio Pavoni, whose metal machine, called “La Pavoni,” was placed over a flame, with a compartment of water boiling forcefully into a tube which goes through a circular level of ground coffee. Despite being popular in cafés, the device was too large for households, and prohibitively expensive.

Enter the moka pot, which was, in essence, a scaled-down, aluminum version of larger devices, synthesizing the water-pressured power of the La Pavoni machine with the build of the three-chambered Napoletana, or Neapolitan flip coffee pot. The prototypical version of the brewer, called the Moka Express, was invented in 1933 by Luigi di Ponti, who sold the patent to a veteran Piedmontese metalworker named Alfonso Bialetti. According to moka origin lore, Bialetti was inspired by a steam-powered laundry machine used by his wife.

Whether or not that part of the story is true, the moka pot didn’t really catch on until after World War II, when arms-producing metal factories shifted gears to non-wartime goods. In this time period, often referred to as the Italian Economic Miracle, falling prices for both aluminum and coffee made the product ever more accessible, and the emergence of a strong middle class expanded the consumer audience.

During this time, it was Bialetti’s marketing-savvy son Renato who would become the face, literally, of the brand. In addition to streamlining his father’s Piedmont metal shop for mass production of the Moka Express, Renato worked with an artist to create the now instantly recognizable Bialetti logo in his family’s image: The Omino con Baffi depicts a tiny cartoon man with a mustache, believed to be one of the Bialetti men. The brand adopted a simple, but effective slogan: “In casa un espresso come al bar,” which translates to, “An espresso at home just like the one at a coffee shop.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when the younger Bialetti passed away in 2016, he was known first and foremost as the brand’s marketing genius. Fittingly, his ashes were placed in a Bialetti Moka Express and sent back to Piedmont.

The moka pot is part of a long lineage of ingenuities emerging from this midcentury golden era of Italian design across furniture, automobiles, household technology, and of course, coffee. “The moka pot was invented in 1933—the same year of illycaffè’s foundation,” explains Giorgio Milos, master barista for illycaffè North America. Milos nods to founder Francesco Illy’s contemporaneous 1935 invention of the illetta, which, on a different trajectory, became the blueprint for modern espresso machines. “A lot of our coffee has been transformed by this magical device. Moka pots are inexpensive, use no plastics, and produce a very nice coffee—and there is definitely nostalgia and fond memories associated with it for those whose parents or grandparents used it.”

The Bialetti company has reportedly sold more than 300 million units of the Moka Bialetti Express. But the moka pot is a rare kitchen device in that it’s transcended its status as just a commonplace tool to become a transatlantic symbol of European culture and design, both on the continent and in Latin America. While ubiquitous in millions of homes from Milan to Miami, it also sits in permanent collections of such hallowed shrines to design as the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Guinness Book of World Records lists the moka pot as “the world’s most popular coffee maker.”

Indeed, rapid industrialization can be credited for the use of aluminum widely in consumer goods including coffee brewers. In Italy, shifts toward modernization would be reflected in Italian futurism—a broad artistic, social, and at times political movement that deified modernity and glorified the strange, inhuman beauty of machine technology. The elder Bialetti was wise to this social and political zeitgeist, catering the moka pot to futurist sensibilities. “Viewed in hindsight, the coming together of coffee with aluminum seems inevitable,” according to a 2001 article published in the Critical Inquiry journal. With its octagonal shape and clean straight lines, the Moka Pot Express preserves these classic features of art deco design, along with the geometric markers of vorticism.

But like many innovations of this era, the moka pot’s legacy is also inextricably tied to Italy’s dark chapter of colonialism and aggression—both before and after the Second World War. To understand this connection, consider the link between futurism and fascism: A political-meets-aesthetic push for modernity and technological progress may have, in part, underscored the birth of the moka pot, but it also informed the Italian expansion into East Africa, including the annexation of the Ethiopian Empire, turning it into a key coffee-growing tributary.

Following World War II, four million Italians would willingly leave Italy—many landing throughout Latin America, particularly in Chile, Peru, Venezuela, and Argentina. Combined with the first mass migration of the Italian diaspora, which happened prior to World War I, these immigrants would constitute the largest voluntary emigration in human history. The cultural contribution of these settlers is particularly felt in places like Argentina, where a majority of the population claims Italian ancestry. “After the Second World War, these European migrants brought moka pots with them, and that’s how it became so ingrained in the culture,” explains Gustavo Ghersi, chief strategy officer at Colombia-based Juan Valdez Café. “These days, the preference in Latin America is to go to coffee shops, but the volume is still at home. It’s a typical cultural element in Latin America that when somebody goes to your house, you immediately put the moka pot on the fire and have a perfect coffee within five or six minutes. There’s a social element.”

Today, “moka pot” might refer to the original, beloved product—or the entire category of similar brewers and a traditional style of coffee making. Countless brands have iterated on the style—think of the Milano Stovetop Espresso Maker from Grosche, or the curvy Moka Alessi, designed with a rounded shape by the late Italian architect Alessandro Mendini. While the form changes, these newcomers all preserve the time-honored spirit and simplicity of the technology.

After the death of Renato in 2016, Bialetti suffered. By 2018, the company found itself slipping toward bankruptcy. But COVID-era lockdowns offered a new opportunity. In a 2021 company profile by Fortune, a Bialetti spokesperson revealed that growing interest in the Moka Pot Express had inspired product development in the form of the Perfetto Moka brand—ground coffee products meant specifically for the device. And Google Trend Data shows a steady increase in the volume of searches for “moka pot” in the United States, reaching a peak in August of 2020 at the height of COVID-era lockdowns.

“I’ve been using a traditional espresso roast with earthy chocolaty notes, playing into the specific ritual and history that the moka pot represents,” explains lifestyle expert and coffee enthusiast Patrick Janelle of his at-home routine. “It can be tricky—you have to keep an eye on the stove or you might end up with overly-extracted flavors. But it’s all part of that rustic charm.”

For all its retro appeal, the moka pot is not unsuited for contemporary trends. In 2019, the streetwear giant Supreme joined forces with Bialetti to release a bright-red Moka Pot Express, ranking it among such other iconic Supreme collaborators as Band-Aid, Fender, and porcelain purveyors Meissen. It’s even been immortalized as an NFT: A Miami-based collective called NFT Cuba Art recently launched a “La Cafetera Challenge” wherein various artists submit illustrations of the device.

“When I first started interacting and building the Cuban NFT community, I asked the group what symbol tied every Cuban in the diaspora together,” founder Gianni D’Alerta explains. “The resounding comment was the cafetera. In this ritual, people share stories, talk about politics, world events or just how their day is going. It’s a sense of home, community, and sharing.”

As unplugging, self-care, and nostalgia become the lingua franca of marketing across industries, this treasure of yesteryear may once again have its rightful time in the spotlight. Amidst a post-pandemic direct-to-consumer coffee boom, one can’t help but think that Renato would be pleased to find the moka pot at the center of yet another home brewing revolution.

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