Bialetti, the Italian maker of the historic moka pot, a stovetop coffee machine and one of the most iconic kitchen appliances ever created, announced recently that the company is in major trouble, with tens of millions of Euros in debt, unpaid salaries and taxes. In a press release, the company even said there are “doubts over its continuity”.
The moka pot is an iconic symbol of Italy and you can see it in several museums, including Museum of Modern Art, but also in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most popular coffee maker. It was for decades commonplace not only in Italy but also in Cuba, Argentina, Australia, and the United States.
Perhaps not many people know that Italy in the history of global coffee culture is very popular, but for different reasons and in different ways than most people probably think.
The different species of “Coffea”, the seeds of which are dried, roasted, and ground to make coffee, are native to east Africa, especially Ethiopia, while coffee as a beverage first shows up in the historical record in what is now Yemen. It spread quickly throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and firmly established itself as part of the culture in what are now Turkey and Iran.
Europeans were late to the coffee spread, even if Italy, sharing the Mediterranean with the Arab and Greek worlds and not really very far from Africa, was probably the gateway for coffee to spread westward. But for centuries after its introduction to Venice in the early 17th century, coffee was seen as an Arab affectation, something foreign and alternately exotic and threatening. And not only in Italy. For istance, in Istanbul, in a certain period, drinking Coffee in public was punishable by death penalty.
In any case, until the late 19th century, Italians drank coffee in pretty much the same way as the Turks: coffee and water are combined in a long-handled metal pot (called cezve) and held over a heat source, then the mixture combines as it boils, and is poured into small cups, where the grounds settle to the bottom.
Italians began coming up with their own devices for brewing coffee in the 19th century, but the biggest by far was the idea of applying pressure to coffee in order to create a strong (and more importantly fast) drink.
This is the age of steam, a miraculous source of power that can unlock the world, and despite it’s not entirely clear who originated the idea of using steam to brew coffee, certainly it was in Italy that it became popular. The first known patent for a machine we might now recognize as a real “espresso machine” was registered by Angelo Moriondo, who created a giant complicated steam-driven machine in 1884, despite he never bothered to manufacture it. Luigi Bezzera, from Milan, modified the Moriondo patent, and his design was further modified by Desiderio Pavoni, whose “La Pavoni” introduced the world to espresso in 1906, at a world’s fair held just in Milan.
Pavoni’s device was a large complex metal contraption that worked, roughly, with a compartment of water on the bottom, heated by placing the entire device on a flame. A tube leads up to a circular puck of ground coffee and, because the entire device is sealed, as the water boils, pressure forces steam and hot water up through the tube and through the coffee grounds. That pressure brews coffee much more quickly than without the pressure, and the fast-brewed, strong coffee flows into a chamber, to be poured directly into cups.
This is, not coincidentally, the exact same way the modern moka pot works, though in a rawer way and on smaller scale.
Pavoni’s contraption was a huge hit, despite it was incredibly expensive and cumbersome. Actually, it wasn’t at all suitable for use at home, which was fine for a few decades because coffee had never been a beverage consumed at home anyway, and it was, as in the Arab world, a communal activity.
Can you believe it? The fact that it was a communal and foreign-seeming ritual seems to have scared those in power in the Catholic world quite a bit, and it took an official approval from Pope Clement VIII in 1600 to clear coffee’s dangerous prejudice! And in any case, coffee was too expensive, and the Pavoni new devices were unsuited to be making coffee at home.
In 1918 Alfonso Bialetti, a Piedmontese metalworker, returned home after a decade spent working with aluminum in France. Industrial production of aluminum was a novelty, and methods for working with it at any real scale had only been developed in 1886. He opened a shop, crafting strong, lightweight aluminum versions of pots and pans that had previously been only available made of iron.
According to the legend, the idea for the moka pot came from a laundry boiler, though that’s not confirmed. What is really known is that the La Pavoni device was very trendy, and there was also a specimen for a smaller coffee machine: the napoletana. It was a small metal device with three sections: a chamber of water, a small puck of coffee in the middle, and a chamber on the other end for brewed coffee. Water is heated up with the water chamber on the bottom, and then the entire device is flipped upside-down, allowing the hot water to drip through the coffee beans and gather as coffee in the previously empty chamber, with no pressure involved.
Bialetti worked on some combination of the La Pavoni and the napoletana for a few years and in 1933 patented his first Bialetti Moka Express. It’s three-chambered, like the napoletana, but uses steam power to force hot water through the coffee, like the La Pavoni. And its characteristic hourglass shape, with the eight-sided chambers, was there from the beginning.
However, the Moka Express design took a while to catch on. Italy still had to get involved in a couple of World Wars, and then recover. It was in the 1950s when all of the italian factories modified to create war materials start their rebirth. Names as Vespa, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo designed incredible vehicles and Bialetti’s Moka Express, which still boasted a futuristic and clever design, suddenly took off.
Alfonso Bialetti’s son, Renato, came back to Piedmont in 1946 to take over his father’s shop, and decided to stop making everything except one product: the Moka Express.
The now low price of aluminum and coffee, and a growing middle class of people who could buy products like this, made the moka pot a perfect device for the time and, in addition, Renato was also a pretty shrewd businessman: in 1953, he commissioned the drawing of the company’s logo, L’omino con i baffi (the little man with the mustache), which has since been inseparable from the Moka Express, the first way that Italians could realistically make coffee at home.
Over the following 60 years, the moka pot would conquer the world: around 2016, the New York Times notes that over 90% of Italian homes had one and the device became so iconic that Renato Bialetti’s ashes, when he died in early 2016, were placed in a moka pot and then buried in Omegna’s cemetery into his family grave.
His creation spread to some countries with large Italian immigrant populations, becoming common in the Italian-American communities in and around Philadelphia, New York City, and Chicago, but also in Argentina and Australia, both of which received large waves of Italian immigration in the 20th century.
The moka pot’s problems began in the 1990s, and came in two forms. The very obvious is that people, in Italy and elsewhere, love coffee pods, wildly popular in Italy, because they are cheap and easy to use.
The other problem, the more interesting one, took place within the coffee-nerd world.
Inspired by Italian espresso bar culture, Starbucks almost single-handedly changed the entire concept of coffee in United States….and the moka pot was not part of that. The espresso machine, which uses mechanical pressure (via pumps and/or levers), was the device used to make coffee in Italian coffee shops, while the moka was strictly for domestic use. Also in Italian coffee bars, Espresso machines, then and now, are gigantic, expensive, difficult to use, and incredibly inefficient from an energy perspective. But Americans tried anyway, replacing their devices with underpowered home espresso machines, ignoring the entire time that there was another option, the one Italians used all along, the moka pot.
However, It seems that in the past few years, coffee nerds have recognized the moka pot for what it is: an entirely different branch of the coffee machine tree, a very old, very clever, and very economical way to make coffee.
With a moka pot you can create a very nice cup of strong coffee, and that the equipment you need is wholly affordable.
The rediscovery of that by coffee nerds bodes well for the future of the moka pot, despite the troubles of Bialetti, the company. Also because It seems impossible for such an iconic gadget to die…