How the moka pot bounced back
Fourth-generation Italian coffee roaster, Valentina Ulivieri, speaks with Jenna Gottlieb about how the iconic moka pot has managed to fend off the threat of coffee capsules.
Created by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, today, the Moka Express pot still holds as much social and artistic significance as it did almost a century ago.
It is said that Alfonso was inspired to make the Moka Express while his wife was doing the laundry. He observed a bucket covered with a cap fitted with a tube; soapy water was brought to a boil, which built pressure and pushed the water up through the tube and over the laundry. There and then the idea for the coffee maker was born.
Named after the coffee-producing city, Mokha in Yemen, it became a status symbol in post-World War II Italy and was one of the first “luxury” items the new Italian middle class purchased.
As moka pots enabled Italians to brew quality espresso at home, they soon came to play a leading role in Italian coffee culture.
The pot is an important “ritual” appliance in Italy, explains Valentina Ulivieri, a fourth-generation coffee roaster at Holly Caffé in Perugia.
“The moka is used when families gather with loved ones,” says Valentina, highlighting the social aspect of coffee in Italy.
Since its launch, more than 330 million pots have been sold globally. Moreover, it has become the standard way of making coffee at home in Southern Europe and has influenced how coffee is consumed the world over.
The novel octagonal shape of the coffee pot (which allows it to diffuse heat perfectly to enhance the aroma of the coffee) has also achieved cult status over the years and has been displayed at many museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
It is this iconic shape that also immortalised the pot in the hearts and homes of consumers.
“Moka pots are used to stand out,” says Valentina, who explains that it is still the preferred way of serving coffee to guests in Italian households to this day.
But despite its popularity, trouble was brewing in the moka pot’s future.
The rise of coffee capsules
By 2018, coffee capsules were everywhere as large companies were marketing the fast and convenient pods for their respective coffee makers.
Suddenly, the moka pot’s popularity slid and Bialetti fell into financial difficulty as sales declined. By 2018 the company was on the brink of insolvency with more than €70 million in debt. The future looked bleak.
In an attempt to boost sales, Bialetti changed tactics and diversified, launching its Perfetto Moka brand of ground coffee, along with a range of cups, mugs, coffee grinders and a French Press.
Eventually, the company joined the coffee-pod revolution with a range of Nespresso-compatible capsules. Made from 100% recyclable aluminium, each capsule contains seven grams of coffee and is designed to best preserve the aroma of the coffee by protecting it from the effects of oxygen, light and humidity.
Fuelled by innovation and consumer demand, the company finally launched its own capsule machine in 2020.
While this has bettered the financial position of the company and allowed them to compete successfully in the world of “high-tech” coffee over the past few years, recent changes in consumer behaviour have necessitated a return to where it all started.
Today, consumers are once again looking for a more sensorial coffee experience – and this, coupled with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, is driving new demand for these pots.
According to company data, Bialetti sold around 3.5 million units annually between 2015 and 2017, slowly rising to 4 million in 2018 and 5 million in 2019.
As Valentina notes: “Even if a pod machine is purchased, the moka is never retired”.
The moka pot is a “must-have“
Moka pots are indeed a staple in Italian households where they are so deeply ingrained in everyday culture that they have become a source of national pride and a symbol of comfort.
That’s because, as Valentina explains, a moka pot is not only about making coffee but the rituals that surround it – rituals that change from morning to night.
“In the morning, it’s the aroma and the hum that wakes most people up,” Valentina says. “Very often, even those who have a pod machine or something else, prefer to make their first cup of coffee in a moka pot.”
In the late afternoon, it might be enjoyed with home-baked goods and “offer guests the chance to talk about what happened that day or reminisce”.
Valentina also explains that coffee preferences vary from region to region in Italy, noting that consumers in the north prefer a lighter blend with notes of hazelnut and chocolate. While in the south, full-bodied dark roasts with strong aromas are more popular.
“In short, for Italians, the moka is a must-have,” Valentina says. “No matter your age or social standing, here, you must have a moka pot.
For younger generations, especially, the moka is much more than just a means of making coffee.
“For them, it is one of the first, if not the first, items that they buy when they leave home,” says Valentina, noting that it has become a symbol of emancipation, freedom and maturity.
“I will never forget the emotion with which I showed my moka pot to my friends the first time they came to visit me at my flat. What a lovely memory to have.”