Until the 20th century, coffee was primarily enjoyed in coffee shops. That all changed when Alfonso Bialetti invented the Moka Express in 1933, inspired by a washing machine his wife used to do laundry. But the Moka didn’t really catch on until after WWII, when Alfonso’s son Renato refined the octagonal Art Deco design to maximize heat capture in the base and replace the flammable wooden handle with a modern Bakelite one.
More importantly, Renato was a marketing genius who innovated advertising techniques in the 1950s to include billboards, commercials, and even animations — introducing “l’omino coi baffi” (the little man with a mustache), based on Renato himself. The little man appeared on the side of the Moka pot and also starred in cartoons showing how quick and easy it was to make coffee with the Moka Express: all you need is water, coffee, and fire to brew espresso-style (it’s not quite espresso) coffee in the comfort of your own home. Since then, an estimated 300 million Moka pots have been sold, and today you can find them in 90% of Italian homes.
The Moka Express consists of three primary cast aluminum parts: a bottom chamber for water, a middle funnel-shaped filter basket for coffee grounds, and a top chamber to collect the brewed coffee.
To brew, fill the bottom chamber with water up to just below the safety release valve in the wall. Then add medium-fine ground coffee (slightly coarser than you’d use for espresso) to the filter basket, but don’t tamp it down. Screw the top chamber back on and place on a stovetop at medium heat. Be careful to avoid an open flame going beyond the edges of the base, otherwise you’ll end up with a stalactite of melted plastic at the end of your handle — as you can see in this well-loved Moka pot that we scanned.
As the water heats up, it creates steam. The steam pressure forces the hot water up through the coffee grounds in the filter basket and into the top chamber. Take it off the heat before the volcanic sputtering phase at the end; this only adds bitterness to your coffee.
The aluminum components prove to be pretty hearty, and if you don’t use abrasive cleaners, the Moka pot develops a coffee patina that some believe enhances the flavor. The gasket around the filter basket wears out over time and will eventually need to be replaced. Here you see how the rubber has dried and cracked, making a secure seal impossible. Steam and water would escape, resulting in an incomplete extraction.
Renato Bialetti died in 2016 at the age of 93, and his ashes were interred in a giant Moka pot. Not long after, Bialetti declared bankruptcy but managed to stay afloat after consolidating their business and securing loans. They moved some of their manufacturing outside of Italy, and our CT scans make us wonder if the new Moka Express that we bought on Amazon is a counterfeit or if the quality of the product has fallen off in recent years. Let’s take a look.
We didn’t need a CT scanner to observe grease around the threading and unwanted aluminum shavings in the lower chamber, but cropping into the center column, we see an uneven surface finish with aluminum debris that hopefully wouldn’t find its way into our coffee.
The quality of the casting in this piece is also inferior. Cropping into the walls, we find the new Moka pot riddled with porosity. These tiny voids in the aluminum may not represent a problem for the performance of the brewer, but they suggest that changes to the casting process or the use of new suppliers may have had unintended consequences. The old Moka pot had visible flash inside the lower chamber from where the pieces of the mold came together, but there’s none to be seen in the new one. Even if Bialetti isn’t what it once was, the Moka pot is here to stay as a beloved brewing technique and icon of industrial design.
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