Will Moka Be America's Next Coffee Tradition?



Find a subject people are passionate about, and you'll find great debates. In my first column, I reported that coffee is the second-most popular drink worldwide after water. That got some tea fans all steamed up, staking their beloved beverage's claim to the number-two spot. Turns out, the tea people have a valid case ... and so do I. When it comes to number of servings, tea indeed stacks up second to water. But when you talk commodity production volume, coffee's nearly 7.7 million tons in 2009 is more than double tea's 3.8 million tons. As logic suggests, it takes more ground coffee than leaf tea to yield equivalent volumes of quality beverage.

Among coffee-philes, debates about preparation method abound. Coffee has to stand apart in the number of basic ways one commonly named beverage can be made. Infused, boiled, French press. Espresso, filter, Turkish, instant (yikes). I could go on.

As with so many foods, the popularity of each coffee preparation method is deeply rooted in local history and culture. Some methods successfully crossed various ponds during the 20th Century. Italy's espresso and Germany's filter coffee—rooted in Melitta Bentz's early 20th-Century experiments with her son's blotter paper—are prime examples, each enjoyed nearly worldwide today.

Some methods' passports still have plenty of room for stamping. Scandinavians, for example, prefer a boiled technique that steeps coarse ground coffee for hours before drinking, mostly unknown elsewhere. Scandinavian peoples—surprise surprise—are the world's coffee consumption champs, at more than10 kilograms annually per capita. At around five kilograms per person, Americans and Italians are miles behind.

Turkish coffee, notable because it's widely believed to be the oldest established method, is popular throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East but hasn't caught on here. It calls for very finely ground coffee to be boiled three times in a copper pot, called an Ibrik. Fortune tellers are fans, using the technique to read our hopefully bright futures.

One Italian-pioneered method I love, for both taste and sentimental reasons, is the Moka pot. (Among the less knowledgeable, the name is confusing, for obvious reasons.) I've been happily surprised to have seen it as much as I have while traveling the U.S., and to get questions about it here and on Twitter. Done the right way—it takes some knowledge, as I'll explain in a bit—the Moka method produces a wonderful coffee: light- to medium-bodied, with a gentleness that enhances aromas. It has a balanced taste, neither bitter nor sour (somewhat dependent on roast—more roasting produces more bitterness), and a clean aftertaste.

Some of you may know Moka by another name: the Bialetti pot. Moka was the name Alfonso Bialetti gave to his new invention in 1933; both the company and the Moka name live on today. Industrial development was strong throughout Europe just before World War II, and it helped transform coffee. As Bialetti toiled and tinkered, my company's founder, Francesco Illy, developed his Illetta machine, considered by many the first modern espresso machine, because it was the first to allow pressure to be increased independent of temperature.

Italian kitchens are typically stocked with not just one but up to three or four Moka pots, each designed to make a specific amount of coffee, from as little as one cup to as many as 12. I can still remember my grandmother yelling from another room, "Giorgio, the Moka is hissing! Stop the flame! The coffee is ready!" Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away before I knew enough to be able to explain to her why that hissing sound was not good for the quality of her Moka coffee. Which leads to my discussion of technique.

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The Moka mechanism is simple. There are three sections: a lower section holds the water, and works like a boiler; a middle area holds the ground coffee; and an upper chamber collects the liquid coffee. A stovetop flame heats the water, creating steam and a little pressure. The pressure pushes the water down, eventually forcing it up through a tube and the ground coffee, and the now-brewed coffee comes up and out of the upper part of the tube, collecting in the upper pot.

While the process is simple to understand, knowing some finer points makes all the difference. First and foremost is grind. If you have a home grinder, go for medium. Too fine of a grind, like you'd use for espresso, results in a burnt and bitter taste from water passing through the ground coffee too slowly, causing over-extraction. Beans ground too coarsely, as for French press, produces an overly light body and sour taste, as water passing through the grounds too quickly leads to under-extraction.

Important: do not press (tamp) the coffee in the filter. If you do, the pressure won't be sufficient for the rest of the process to work properly, leading once again to over-extraction. If you prefer a stronger flavor profile, fill up the filter just up to its capacity, not more and not less. Fill the lower chamber with cold water up to the valve or marked line—read the manual carefully—and set it on a low flame, properly extracting the coffee slowly at a lower temperature.

Critical final step: turn off the flame when the upper section is half full, to avoid overheating and burning the coffee. As the water approaches boiling, which you don't want to happen, the process rapidly accelerates, extracting bitter, unpleasant flavors—creating a burnt taste—and upsetting the beautifully balanced aromatic equilibrium the Moka method is known for. That hiss my grandmother took as "coffee's done" signal comes from steam, and steam burns coffee.

Bottom line: Moka preparation is simple, but it takes attention and time. It's not a "set it and forget it" method. There is, however, a special edition Bialetti Moka pot, called Cuor di Moka, or Heart of Moka, that incorporates a special valve that cuts off the last part of the extraction at the right time.

In Italy, Moka preparation is a sort of ritual, and that is why I bring my personal Moka pot with me when travelling. Even though espresso is my favorite way to prepare coffee, sometimes I use my Moka pot to enjoy a quiet time with a "longer" coffee, and to savor a different taste experience. Espresso is espresso, and Moka is Moka.

Note: An Appreciation

As I wrote this article, on the other side of the Atlantic (not the magazine ... the ocean!), the 11th World Barista Championship (WBC) in London was just wrapping up, with Intelligentsia's Mike Phillips taking top honors. He is the best, most skilled barista I've ever seen. I haven't had the honor to talk to Mike, but hope to soon. I had World Cup on my TV, and Mike and his WBC competitors on my computer screen, watching live feeds at www.worldbaristachampionship.com, where you can still find great footage and other info.

As a guy who placed a (disappointing) 27th at WBC in Copenhagen in 2008, I know what it takes to win, and Mike's performance was masterful. He took the huge risk of incorporating grinding into the very short time given to prepare multiple coffees. It was a highly technical feat, performed to perfection. I saw him do it earlier this year at the U.S. championships in Anaheim, where I was in the audience looking on, and last year at WBC in Atlanta, where I coached the Italian champion, Michele Pauletic.

Mike's performance demonstrates all that is great about coffee—the passion, the complexity—and to me, watching him is the best way to get people involved in this wonderful world of coffee.

My warmest congratulations to Mike, whose passion for his craft is equaled only by his unparalleled skill.