The Moka pot is one of the easiest to use brewing methods but also one of the most misunderstood. It’s relatively versatile, very fast, and while It makes a good cup of strong coffee, it’s one of the brewing methods that also definitely puts its own character on the flavors in the cup. I was lucky enough to live in Italy from age 12-18 and Moka pots are ubiquitous there. When we were back for a visit in 2013 the apartment we rented in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood had two of them, thankfully. I’ve been using a Moka pot off and on for over 20 years, but a recent package from Abuela Mami got me re-invigorated about using it! I will do a focus piece on Cuban coffee and a shootout of the four brands they sent me, but in the meantime, let’s just look at the Moka pot as a general technique.
The Moka pot is relatively simple. You have a lower chamber filled with water to the bottom of a pressure release valve, a small basket containing ground coffee fits in and then the upper part is screwed on. The upper assembly has a thin metal piece with holes in it held in by a rubber gasket that seals the chamber when you screw the pieces together. As the water boils, it forces up through the coffee bed and out a spout in the upper part. People often refer to the coffee a Moka pot makes as “espresso,” which it certainly is not, but it is a dark and strong cup of coffee, no doubt. The Moka pot simply does not create the kinds of pressure needed to make proper espresso.
I was always under the assumption that all coffee that comes from a Moka pot tastes the same, regardless of type, brand, etc. Part of this was the coffee I traditionally used and part of it was my technique. Like most Italians, I have usually used an Italian pre-ground “espresso” in a can or vacuum package for my Moka. This is usually very darkly roasted, so there will be a lot of similarities whether one is using Lavazza or Illy or some other brand. The technique has a lot to do with the outcome, too. Until last year, on the occasions I would use my Moka pot, I would pour cold water into the chamber, boil it as fast as possible and drive it through the coffee bed as fast as I can. Turns out this is pretty much the wrong way to do it, and this video explains why (if you don’t want to watch the vid, I’ll summarize below):
So, what we learn from this video is that the longer it takes to boil the water, the more the coffee is being subjected to heat and that’s where some of the burned flavors I have always associated with this method come from. Since watching this video, I have started using the technique of pre-boiling my water in a tea kettle and then adding it to the lower chamber so the coffee brews much faster and the coffee grounds are subjected to less heat and this has worked quite well. In fact, with specialty coffee that I am grinding at home, rather than pre-ground coffee, I can actually taste some of the characteristics of the coffee itself for the first time using this method! LOL I’ll be curious to see if I can tell much of a difference from the four vacuum packs that Abuela Mami sent me, but you can get some nuances out of the brew if you pre-boil the water and then control your brewing temp a bit more carefully.
When I make a Moka, which is rare except for recently because of practicing my Cuban coffee skills, I usually drink it one of two ways: either straight or as Cuban coffee. When I was in Italy last, I just did not like the flavors of the straight coffee I was making, using Lavazza Oro pre-ground coffee, so I learned that cutting the coffee with about 1/3 to 1/4 of hot water produced a nicer cup. Sort of like an “Americano” although I think this does the opposite in espresso, although that’s the subject of another article. Anyway, I ended up using a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of Moka coffee to hot water while I was in Italy and it made a taller, easier to drink and tastier cup. At home in the States I usually just drink it straight, but I can count on one hand how often I use my Moka pot, really.
Cuban coffee is a whole other subject for another article, but this super sugary, super strong coffee is fun to make and drink, although my sugar spuma making skills are still lacking! Stay tuned, probably next week I’ll have a shootout of the various Cuban coffee brands as well as a story on making a Cuban coffee at home…