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The Tiny, Italian Coffee Maker I’ll Never Give Up

published Apr 21, 2023
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For scores of people around the world, the word “coffee” is synonymous with that great caffeinated Italian invention: espresso. While I’ve spent most of my 21 years in the coffee industry obsessing about espresso — how to pull a great shot, how to find just the right blend, how to care for the $10,000 machine used to make it — I’ll admit that there’s a humbler, homier Italian coffee that I love just as much: moka. 

Also called “stovetop espresso makers,” moka pots are portable three-piece coffee makers that create a concentrated coffee liquid meant to be enjoyed much like espresso, in small, strong doses. Water in a bottom chamber heats over a stove burner until it builds up enough pressure to be forced upward through a tube that drives it through a puck of finely ground coffee. The brewed coffee then spurts out the top into a separate chamber, where it can be poured off and served.  

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The moka pot trailed the espresso machine in invention by just a few decades, but signaled a major shift in coffee culture in Italy: Previously, coffee was considered an out-of-home experience, generally one shared among friends, family, and associates. This social habit was inherited from Arab and Ethiopian cultures, where gathering to share a small, strong cup of coffee was a significant community ritual. The invention of behemoth steam-powered espresso machines during Italy’s industrial revolution made it possible to make and drink that coffee much faster, but several daily trips to the local barista got expensive pretty quick. 

In 1933, a metalworker from the Piedmont named Alfonso Bialetti designed the prototype that would become an icon and inspiration for countless variations to come: the Moka Express, which is still produced to this day. (Of course, there are lots of brands now.)

Thanks in large part to being smaller, more portable, and much less expensive than espresso machines, the moka pot is now one of the most recognizable and beloved coffee-making devices in the world, especially in Italy: It’s estimated that 70 to 90% of Italian households have one, and they’ve grown in popularity worldwide as well. 

Credit: Ever Meister

My household has one too, and I use it when I want something that packs a punch with minimum fuss. (I actually have this version, from IKEA, and I love it because it makes 13.5 ounces of coffee.) Espresso purists argue that the coffee these contraptions make doesn’t technically count as “espresso,” in part because the pressure that’s built up in the pot isn’t as strong as in a commercial machine — but that doesn’t stop me from using mine to make Sunday morning lattes for my partner or quick Tuesday-afternoon Americanos for myself. 

One reason I love the moka pot, and often turn to it before anything else, is that it’s a more forgiving and accessible way to brew fantastic espresso-esque coffee. The grind size doesn’t need to be quite as fine, which means that most home burr grinders can handle the job. Most moka pots have easy-to-see guide lines for the amount of water and coffee you’ll need, making it simple to dose out your ingredients. No tamping necessary, and no too-cool barista attitude required. 

Simply screw the pieces together tightly (to prevent the pressure from popping the chambers apart) and settle the brewer over medium heat. If you open the top, you can see your brewed coffee start to spurt out into the upper chamber; after 1 or 2 minutes, you’ll hear the tell-tale hissing and sputtering sound that lets you know the coffee is done. Remove the pot from the heat and pour the coffee out into a mug: You can drink it neat like an espresso, or add hot water or milk for an Americano- or latte-like experience. (Pro tip: Heating the water to about 180°F before putting it in your moka pot will reduce the time that your coffee grounds are exposed to heat, and can result in a smoother, less bitter cup.)

Cleanup is easy, too. Once they’re cool, simply unscrew the components, discard the coffee grounds, and clean the whole pot with mildly soapy water. Bonus: The pots are built to be virtually indestructible, which is good if you tend to be clumsy while sleepy.

This post was originally published on Kitchn. Read it there: The Tiny, Italian Coffee Maker I’ll Never Give Up