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In Italy a Moka pot can be found in practically every kitchen. And the Moka Express, by Bialetti, is the iconic, and classic, machine.
This month we look at the history of Bialetti and their Moka Express. A machine that we have stocked for over 50 years.In 1919 in the village of Omegna, Piedmonte, Alfonso Bialetti opened a workshop for the manufacture of aluminum semi-finished products. The company grew to become Alfonso Bialetti & Co.
Alfonso Bialetti came up with the brilliant idea of the Moka Express, a machine that would revolutionize the way of making coffee at home, and forever change the culture of Italian coffee. Until this point coffee was mostly consumed in coffee bars, of which women were mainly excluded. Men would meet to discuss current affairs and politics, the invention of the moka allowed women to gather with friends and neighbours over coffee and discuss worldly affairs.
The machine itself was inspired by laundry and the lessiveuse, a metal washtub with a central steel tube that when placed on the fire, would draw up the soapy water and redistribute it over the laundry (see photo above). Beautifully, it was Alfonso's wife who inspired the iconic 8- sided shape of the Moka with her silhouette: the head, the broad shoulders, the narrow waist, the arm on the hip and a pleated skirt. The name is in honor of the city of Mokha in Yemen, one of the most famous production areas of coffee in the world.
The original Moka Express debuted in 1933 and has remained virtually unchanged ever since, there have been small changes, but the fundamentals of the machine remain. We have sold Bialetti’s for as long as I can remember and have always displayed them as part of our window display and if you look closely, you will see one that looks a little different... that is because we have a 6 cup Bialetti from the 70’s. Photos below.
Alfonso’s invention proved popular, and he did well selling it at local markets and in the years leading up to World War II sold nearly 10,000 annually. After the war Alfonso’s son, Renato, unpacked his father’s machinery that had been set aside during the war and resumed production. In the 1950s, Renato Bialetti succeeded his father as the head of the company. (Renato Bialett below).
Renato had big plans for the company and the Moka Express and began advertising on billboards, in newspapers, on the radio and then on television. In 1958 the famous figure in Bialetti ads, Omino coi Baffi (Little Man with Moustache), was born. The cartoon man, with his finger in the air, as if he’s trying to get a bartender's attention to order an espresso, and his slogan "Oh yes, it seems easy ..." is a caricature of Renato Bialetti by illustrator Paolo Campani.
The mustachioed man was added to the machines and became part of the logo of the company and today is as iconic as the Moka Express itself.
The advertising was successful, and the business grew almost immediately. In 1956 the company moved to a new factory and produced four million machines annually, over the next 60 years more than 200 million machine were sold internationally.
Photo below of the Bialetti logo. We have many of these stands dotted around the store.
Bialetti have many different Mokas, different colours, some varying in shape, some in stainless steel. Below is a photo of the Moka Alpina (Alpine Moka), fittingly this was the machine that we had in our chalet in Courmayeur, Italy when we went skiing in January.
There is also a fabulously large Moka Express. It is just for display mind, there is no basket inside…mind you, even if there was, could you imagine the fire you would need underneath to heat it?! Here is me below, beautifully posing with the large Moka at the London Coffee Festival.
Renato Bialetti sadly passed away in February 2016. His family honored his memory by placing his ashes in one of the large models of the Moka Express and, after being blessed at his funeral, was placed in the family tomb in Omegna.
How to brew your coffee in a Moka.
Start by pouring room temperature water into the base until it reaches the safety valve.
Fill the basket with coffee, be generous and ensure it is full. Do not press down the coffee.
Put the pot on the stove over a low heat, so the flames don’t reach over the base.
Take your time. When you hear the gurgling, your coffee is ready. Take it off the stove, serve, and enjoy!
Stephen Boland says...
Ah thanks for another great post; having read that my Bialetti pot was inspired by Alphonso‘s lady, my early morning coffee can never be the same!
She makes me smile every day now as I gently help her down from the shelf.
All the best
On Jul 30, 2022
Helena Johnson says...
A great read as ever! I was used to have one as well but it was rather small – we are spoilt and have a larger double-walled cafetiere just for the two of us, very morning. One of the pleasures of retirement. I’m happy today, my parcel with your delicious coffee arrived in the morning so all is well in my world, thank you.
On Jul 29, 2022
Hello , really enjoy reading the blog every month – very well written and very entertaining and educational ….
I have a question about Moka pots … I’m sure I read somewhere ,someone recommended filling the pot with boiling water so the process is speeded up and more flavour is extracted from the coffee …… is this correct , I’ve tried it but I can’t tell any difference ….. Thanks very much.
On Jul 30, 2022
Sheridan swinson says...
I have got a bit obsessed with trying to make a Moka pot work. I have switched to a steel Groenenberg pot and find starting with boiled water and using an additional paper filter works best. Am currently using with ACS Vietnamese Dragon Balls ground quite fine with a hand grinder and the results are great.
On Jul 28, 2022
Thanks for this lovely article. I liked the way you kept coming back to the shop. Made me want to visit again, maybe buy another Bialetti!
On Jul 28, 2022
Faisal Jamal says...
Nice bit of history and technique. I have had a Bialetti 2 cup pot for years. I used to use it regularly until I purchased an espresso machine and to tell the truth if I got it right it used to make a sublime ‘espresso’. But now I’m totally addicted to the espresso machine. Thank you for the informative article always nice to read.
On Jul 27, 2022
Thanks for the blog very informative
On Jul 27, 2022
Lovely to read the history of the Bialetti coffee maker. There is so much history in everyday objects. Like all great design, the simplest solution is usually the best.
I once(a very long time ago!) worked with a chap called Bialetti in Liverpool City Libraries, maybe a very distant relation!
Thank you for these blog posts, I really enjoy reading them.
I haven’t been able to get into Soho for a while, but hopefully will be visiting you very soon.
All good wishes
On Jul 27, 2022