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.