The Story of the Bialetti Moka Express

Alongside and connected to the rise of Italian fascism came a revolution in the drinking habits of the Italian public. It might sound peculiar, but what has become known as THE Italian way to brew coffee in the home, Moka Pot (or Stovetop Espresso) Brewing is linked to the social, technological and economic changes that Italian fascism advanced during the 1930’s.

Prof. Jeffrey T. Schnapp in his article, “The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28 No. 1, Autumn 2001 U. of Chicago) covers this ground in detail. Schnapp shows how the Italian desire to move into the era of modernity in the early 20th century was expressed through the “marriage” between two, ostensibly very different materials, caffeine and aluminum. While my article summarizes his, I must accept all responsibility for any additions, misinterpretations or mistakes that may have entered it.

Bialetti Ad In Trade Fair Catalog
Bialetti Ad In Trade Fair Catalog

Caffeine and Aluminum are two materials that carry a common symbolism linking them to the age of modernity: Lightness, speed and mobility, Strength, energy, and electricity, are terms that fit both these materials and are associated with the new life style that modern man was seeking.

Coffee and Aluminum: Icons of Modernity

While both caffeine and aluminum were isolated (or discovered) in the early to mid 19th century, it was the fascist drive to make Aluminum the national metal of the Italy in the 1930’s that brought these two materials together in a way that would effect every Italian home! In 1933, Alfonso Bialetti fashioned and crafted the first Aluminum Stovetop espresso coffee maker. This coffee machine, The Moka Express, would find itself in 90% of all Italian homes (as well as in the Guinness Book of Records) thus changing the essence of Italian coffee culture.

Bialetti changed not only coffee brewing technique but also the Italian social fabric.

Coffee was generally consumed publicly. Public coffeehouses dominated the coffee trade in all aspects from buying and selling to roasting and consumption. They were the birthplaces of many ideological and political movements throughout Europe. Public coffee consumption was the realm of the male who made the coffee bar his home away from. Consumption of coffee by women was associated with their move to emancipation.

Inventors sought how to use new developments in technology to create better and more powerful coffee machines for the public sphere. The coffeehouse was associated with the developing modern psyche. (On the other hand, domestic coffee machines remained quite “tame”, being simple and basic.)

Increased consciousness of the effect Caffeine had on the individual also served as a catalyst to these developments. Caffeine, isolated in 1820, was associated with creativity, agitation and activity, Honore de Balzac wrote of the effects of coffee:

Ideas surge forth like the battalions of a great army…Memories attack with their banners unfurled…witticisms appear as sharpshooters. Figures begin to take shape. The paper covers itself with ink for the mighty labor begins and ends with torrents of black water…

Decades later the Italian founder of the Futurist movement would call himself the “caffeine of Europe” who, as Schnapp writes, “envisaged himself both as a purgative agent, dedicated to freeing Europe from its idolatry of the past, and as a new sort of industrial-era human being-a hyperactive multiplied man…”

These developments and concepts gave birth to what was to become THE ultimate Italian form of coffee: Cafe Espresso, a strong and powerfully intense cup.

The 19th century saw a number of attempts to brew coffee with steam. The goal was to brew a strong cup of coffee very quickly. One coffee brewer actually took the shape of a train locomotive (see image) highlighting the connection between speed and power and the use of water boilers used for both modern travel and making “modern” coffee. In 1901 Luigi Bezzera filed his first patent for a large espresso machine. This machine, like the railroad locomotives, was a dazzling piece of equipment-loud, shining with brass fittings and manned with its own “train engineer”, the professional barista.

Locomotive Coffee Machine
Locomotive Coffee Machine

The Italian artist Leonetto Cappiello beautifully captured this association in the 1922 advertising poster created for “La Victoria Aduino”, manufacturers of espresso machines.

La Victoria Aduino
La Victoria Aduino by L. Cappiello (1922)

How different than the simple coffee machines, like the Napolitana still used in the home. The home machines were like sedate tea brewers that brewed by letting hot water gently trickle over the coffee grinds.

The Espresso brewed at the public coffee bar “was power-packed, intense and quickly consumed It translated the values of efficiency and excitement associated with the express train into an everyday beverage. In comparison to coffeehouse espresso the domestic coffee was but a slow and pallid imitation.” (Schnapp p 251). One can understand how the Espresso Bar became a magnet for the Italian man.

But, in 1933 Alfonso Bialetti invented a brewing system that changed the image of domestic coffee in Italy. His chances for success were increased as the invention brought about the marriage of two materials Aluminum and coffee. Beyond their appeal as symbols of modernity, these two substances were significant to the Italian nation during the 1930’s.

The Italian Commitment to Aluminum

Fascism’s “March on Rome” wanted to create a break with the past and at once restore Italy to its old glory. The use of Aluminum would suit this two-fold desire. In a huge national advertising campaign during the ’30’s, Aluminum would be described as being be both AVIONAL and ANTICORODAL. “Avional”-from the word meaning “airplane”, would suggest the modern technological aspect highlighting both speed and strength. “Anticorodal”, “non-corroding”, would highlight traditional values, everlasting and sturdy.

Beyond this double symbolism, Aluminum work was associated with the combination of high technological achievement with the traditional Italian values of craftsmanship and fine design. So it was quite natural to call Italians to “Rally” around this material as was done in a 1931 editorial:

“…(A)cknowledge that a new and decisively important protagonist has emerged in the nation’s economic life: ALUMINUM. An Italian metal, the abundance of which makes us the envy of the world…Aluminum is sure to permit us to reduce to a bare minimum the importation of other metals, freeing the Fatherland from the onerous tributes that, to this day, continue to be exacted abroad…(Aluminum) embodies Italy’s unyielding destiny!”

Note the words of Arnoldo Mussolini, the brother of “il Duce”:

“We have often said: just like the 19th century was the century of iron, heavy metals and carbon, so the 20th century should be the century of light metals, electricity and petroleum. In the course of history discoveries sometimes serve as the beneficiaries of peoples. If we (Italians) haven’t iron, we have Aluminum.”

Besides promising economic independence Aluminum was seen as particularly suited to the Italian craftsman. In an article from 1932 we read

“…we would be tempted to assert the Latinity of aluminum to the degree than other metal lends itself so well the temperament of the Latin peoples, in general and of the Italians, in particular. ..one can declare without hesitation that Italy has achieved a degree of aesthetic expressivity…that place it in the forefront.”

Hand casting Aluminum Parts
Hand casting Aluminum Parts in the Bialetti Factory

Coffee was also seen as highlighting nationalistic values, particularly, EMPIRE and AUTARCHY. “Empire”, in that Italy had invaded Ethiopia-a major producer of coffee beans. “Autarchy”, freedom from subjugation to the nations of the world, because Brazil had continued to supply Italy with coffee bean against League of Nations decisions to apply sanctions.

Alfonso Bialetti Creates His Stove Top Espresso Machine

Coffee, a national beverage thanks to the spread of espresso bars during the beginning of the 20th century, and Aluminum, the national metal, wed when Alfonso Bialetti returned from France, where he worked in the Aluminum industry. He started his own machine shop in 1918 in an area of Italy known, since WWI, as a center for manufacturing metal house-wares.

During the 1920’s Bialetti noticed the laundry methods used by local women. The wash was boiled in tubs with a central pipe in the middle. This pipe would draw the soapy water up and redistribute it over the laundry. Bialetti’s creative mind brought him to the conclusion that a simple coffee machine could be fashioned on this model and could produce real “espresso type” coffee in the private home.

Moka Express
Moka Express (Exploded View)

At this time, other Italians were busy trying to create new and better ways to brew coffee-using pressure rather than steam to extract the best from the coffee bean. But the high pressure-lower than boiling water solutions of companies like Gaggia were to take years of developing. These modern “true” espresso machines would remain fairly large and costly, using complex systems to attain their superior results. Italians were still used to the steam pressured “espresso” machines that dominated the coffeehouse scene and were, therefore, open to simpler solutions that would give them the same style coffee at home.

In 1933, after some years of tinkering and solving technical problems Alfonso Bialetti invented the Moka Express. Bialetti’s coffee machine, made of Aluminum, was similar in shape and design to silver coffee services popular in well to do homes. Thus he combined modern technology with the Italian tradition for elegance and craftsmanship. The Stovetop Espresso machine was simple and compact, yet capable of making the power packed brew associated with the large espresso machine of the Espresso Bar. The express claim of Bialetti was that “without requiring any ability whatsoever” yet one could enjoy “in casa un espresso come al bar” (“An espresso in the home just like one in the bar.)

Bialetti Mascot
The Little Man with Mustache is the Bialetti Mascot

Alfonso Bialetti had the vision and invented the Moka Express, which would remain virtually unchanged until today. But Bialetti did not have the marketing success to move the revolution forward.

Bialetti Growth in Post War Italy

Prior to the war (1936-1940), Alfonso was able to market about 10,000 units per year. He personally sold his product at stands set up at public markets held weekly. He advanced to regional marketing but never thought in terms of a national effort or of industrializing production.

The final domestication of “espresso” would have to wait until after WWII when Alfonso’s son, Renato returned from a German POW camp to unpack the machinery his father had packed away during the war. Renato began a massive marketing campaign. With increased sales he had to raise production up to a rate of about 1,000 per day! He combined focus in production (dropping all the products his father used to produce besides the Moka Express) with breadth in advertising vision (utilizing billboards, radio campaigns as well as newspapers and magazines.)

Trade Fair in Milan
Billboards during the Trade Fair in Milano

During the post-war boom, competitors entered the field and it was necessary to differentiate the Bialetti product. In 1953 Renato invented the company mascot, “omino con I baffi” (little man with a mustache). This character was a caricature of Renato’s father Alfonso and conjured up the image of the Italian father or dear elder family member who had lived his life in the coffeehouse. It was a symbol that evoked feelings of nostalgia and fondness. This patriarchal figure though, is a man on the move. With his finger raised he could be hailing a taxi or commanding attention as he orders his espresso.

Every year Renato Bialetti “conquered” Milan during its most important annual trade show “Fiera di Milano”. He rented every available billboard in the city and created outstanding installations. For example, in 1956, besides the booth in the Fair itself Bialetti erected a huge outdoor sculpture consisting of a giant Moka Express supported by, what looked like, a stream of coffee being poured into an equally large coffee cup.

Milano Fair
An Outdoor Installation at Milano Fair

“Espresso in the Home Just Like in the Bar”

The billboards proclaimed: “in casa un espresso come al bar” (“An espresso in the home just like one in the bar.) The little mustached man no longer needed to find his home away from home in the neighborhood coffee bar, but could bring the coffee bar into his own private house. The post-war years saw an economic boom in Italy. The Fascist period was put behind and American influenced values became prevalent. The Italian home became the focus of the nuclear family and increased in size and comfort. Egalitarian values meant that men would find themselves expected to be more active in the home. The advertising campaign of Bialetti fit this trend as stressed that:

  1. The Moka Pot gave you a drink at home as intense and good as what you normally get at a Coffee Bar
  2. Papa’s place was now in the kitchen where he could make own cup of coffee. (However he could feel as if he were playing the role of “barista” brewing a masculine beverage.)

Besides addressing the social and marketing factors, Renato addressed the organizational and industrial aspects. He moved production operations to a newly designed factory in the 1950’s that was especially designed to efficiently move materials. He modernized while preserving quality craftsmanship at crucial stages of production. To this day the bottom boiler unit continues to be handcrafted by expert workmen just as it had been done in 1933.

With this arrangement Renato pushed production to 18,000 pieces a day-or 4 million Moka pots per year! At this rate of production we can well believe the claim that nearly 300,000,000 Moka pots have been sold since the 1950’s. 90% of all Italian homes have at least one Moka Pot-making this a true symbol of Italy.

While many competitors have moved exclusively into stainless steel models, the people of Bialetti continue to claim that the use of Aluminum improves the quality of the brew. The “interesting” aspect of this claim is that they say that the residue coffee from previous brews adds flavor and depth to future brews. It is not recommended to clean the Moka pot too thoroughly! It is true that Aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat and even heating of the water may contribute to the quality of the brew.

Bialetti’s Moka Express continues to be a respected Italian icon. In a recent survey of Italian design, the Moka Express ranked as the fifth best design to have come out of Italy in the 20th century. It’s place of honor is alongside the likes of the 1957 Fiat 500, a 1946 Vespa and… Nutella, which won first place.

Bialetti has also added new lines of Moka Pots using stainless steel and designs that are modern and elegant. They have developed new technologies, creating electric models and a new pressure system (the Brikka system) that produces an improved cup of coffee with a layer of “crema”. As espresso technology in the coffee bars (and at home) has improved over the years, Bialetti continues to strive to offer “in casa un espresso come al bar” (An espresso in the home just like one in the bar.)

Moka Pot 1999
John Wenzel – Moka Pot 1999

Resources

Bialetti Stovetop Espresso Maker – Amazon.com product page.

Stovetop Espresso Brewing Tutorial – INeedCoffee coffee brewing tutorial.

Leonetto Cappiello – Wikipedia page on the creator of the 1922 poster La Victoria Aduino.

Espresso Nirvana – A history on the refinement of espresso (coffeekid.com).

Frustration – My previous article on a good Moka cup at home vs a poor espresso outside the home.

The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee by Honore de Balzac

ToxFAQs(TM) for Aluminum – Goverment health report that downplays the health risks of aluminum.

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Myron Joshua

Myron Joshua grew up on Chocolate Milk with the gurgling of his mother's Folgers being percolated in the background. At age 18 while living on a Kibbutz in Israel he learned to drink "cafe botz" (Cooked turkish coffee) in the communal dining hall before going to the fields at 5:30 am. From then it was 30 years of instant coffee (no sugar, no milk) until someone poured him a cup of brewed Sumatran. Now he grinds his own beans before going to work at his office in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.

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