I am an English-speaking, freelance food writer based in Rome. I love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.
The Eureka Moment
Everyone has seen these adorable little stovetop coffee boilers. Versions exist in museums across the world, including in Milan and New York. This simple device was invented during the turmoil of severe economic depression that lasted throughout Europe in the 1930s.
On closer inspection, one sees that its history was born from thrift, economics and changing cultural trends. Credit for the first patent of the Moka Express is often given to Luigi De Ponti, who was, in fact, the CEO of Alfonso Bialetti & C., Fonderia In Conchiglia S.P.A. a family firm.
The idea of how to build a coffee pot came from Alfonso watching his busy wife doing the laundry. At that time, an appliance called a "Lessiveuse" was used to wash clothes. This machine resembled a metal bucket with a hollow tube with a perforated top. Water was put in the bucket with the laundry and soap, and a small flame appliance at the bottom boiled the liquid; this then passed upwards through the central metal tube, passing out of small slotted outlets at the top back over the laundry and rotating the washing clothes with the detergent. This basic boiler and funnel would be the basis of Alfonso's design.
By the end of 1933, Alfonso Bialetti had created the first prototype "Moka" to prepare coffee at home.
Alfonso was an engineer and the instantly recognisable Moka, with its particular octagonal shape, brought a revolution to the way coffee was prepared at home.
Other at-home coffee options had existed notably the Neapolitan cafeteria, but this newer model had a few design firsts and produced much stronger coffee. To do this it used a single moulded heater, an aluminium all in one metal assembly, a distinctive eight-sided metal block to boil the water, a funnel style tube filter and a metal container reservoir.
Its creator, however, viewed his creation as a sort of work of art seeing himself as an artisan, untarnished by commercial concerns, working for the glory of his craft not driven by the financial imperative.
His greatest satisfaction in life was to go to bed at night with his cigar in one hand and to gaze at a beautiful handcrafted Moka piece that had come out of his small family run smelting foundry.
Up until the post-Second World War period, the Bialetti coffee maker had stayed as a niche product mainly used by the coffee connoisseur the Moka model itself being produced in just limited numbers and sold locally in the province of Verbania Italy.
A big change was on its way in the form of Alfonso's ambitious son Renato who in 1946 started working in the family business. Thanks to this new blood and a strong entrepreneurial vocation, industrial production was introduced starting the real commercialization of the product and the brand.
Renato had a gift for showmanship, using the medium of television he popularised his product on the main RAI tv station and created a brand trademark around his distinctive handlebar moustache as can be seen in the trademark icon, a caricature of a man with a finger raised in the air ordering another cup of coffee. The tv advertisements themselves capitalised on the early black and white medium with stark line tonal drawn animations and strong typography. The now famous advert features a character who fails to fry an egg, consoled by the knowledge and eventual reward of an easier to make espresso coffee.
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In 1948, Achille Gaggia introduced the high-pressure extraction system, creating a new coffee bar style, however by the late 1950's the coffee bar scene was a very male dominated space. Baristas tended coffee making monsters consisting of boilers and tubes under pressure some brands even designed in the shape of a steam train. The Moka tempted female drinkers away from the coffee bar to a home kitchen based coffee drinking style that gave Italians a completely different taste experience, it wasn't perfect like high-pressure coffee in a bar but it was close enough, cheaper and convenient.
Renato was quick to capitalise on this gap in the market.
Like Russian dolls he realised that the cost-conscious average Italian family needed various sizes depending on how many sat down for breakfast or lunch, the smallest unit making just one cup and the biggest a whopping twelve cups.
Bialetti is now found in nine of ten households in the Italian kitchen many families will have more than one and many have the full set.
It is remarkable to think that in ten years after Bialetti senior managed to produce and sell 70,000 pieces, his son Renato in just one year had managed to sell over a million units.
It is impossible to talk about the Moka without mentioning the shadow of Fascism over this invention. Back in 1930, aluminium, especially in Italy, was seen as symbolic of a new age of technology. The twisted fascist logic saw iron as a material of the 19th century and aluminium of the 20th century.
As a metal used in industry, it was heavily endorsed as a new technological material as its widespread use was believed would propel humanity in the correct Futurist direction, the idea of man and machine in technological harmony.
Today this successful company sells new Steel products releasing to market a device that makes Cappuccino and a unit with a clear panel near the top metal reservoir. Steel units are still met with a certain resistance from the Italian consumer on the grounds of taste, in fact, with new units the company guide recommends the new purchaser throw away the first three brews and most Italians never clean their Moka but just rinse under water and allow to air dry.
The Moka is incredibly simple but the few basic parts occasionally need to be replaced.
- Filter Plates
- Valves (Mukka only)
The device is sensitive to grind size and most people's initial problems are due to over tamping the filter and compressing the filter puck so that water cannot pass through freely.
Made in Italy
Today, after 80 years from its creation, and 200 million coffee maker units sold the Moka is an icon of cultural tradition.
It actually represents il Bel Paese, a reference to Italy being a nice place to live in the world, telling of the values of tradition through a tactile and emotional route which speaks about home life, affection and good quality but economic coffee.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is it ok to use espresso grounds rather than regular grounds, what's the best coffee to get rich flavor?
Answer: Yes, you can use espresso grounds just tap the base to settle the grounds evenly in the filter cup.
© 2017 Adele Barattelli
Adele Barattelli (author) from L'Aquila, Italy on September 19, 2018:
Hi Kaydence, here is an online copy of the patent.
Lena Durante from San Francisco Bay Area on June 27, 2017:
Everyone in my immediate family uses a Moka to make coffee! Actually, I read last year when Bialetti died that he had his ashes buried in one of them, which I found very sweet.
Ryan from Louisiana, USA on June 27, 2017:
Drip pots are still one of the best ways to brew coffee for a great flavor. Especially with fresh ground coffee beans. Thank you for this little history lesson. I really learned some things. Now, time to go make some coffee.
Adele Barattelli (author) from L'Aquila, Italy on June 27, 2017:
Thank you Maria, I drank a few cups while writing the article!
Maria Elizabeth from Cheshire/Greater Manchester, UK on June 27, 2017:
Really enjoyed this Adele. Great article about an iconic product.