For decades, millions of Italians at home and abroad have started their morning ritual waiting for the telltale whistling and bubbling sound that signalled the moka pot was brimming with a strong brew of coffee.
But the original moka – a fixture in Italian homes and an icon of Italian design since it was introduced by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933 – now risks extinction as its maker struggles against bankruptcy amid a difficult Italian economy and fierce competition from high-tech coffee pod machines.
On Friday, the Bialetti group announced a raft of measures it is taking to address 68 million euros in debt and “doubts over its continuity.”
When Alfonso Bialetti introduced his patented design for the eight-sided aluminum stovetop coffee machine that moves boiling water, pressurized by steam, up through ground coffee, the Italian economy was in a terrible state. It was 1933 – banks were failing, unemployment was high and Italians were cutting luxuries like trips to cafes – hence the demand for a pretty, in-house coffee machine.
More than 105 million moka pots have been produced since then, with the original 1933 Bialetti design remaining a favourite among aficionados keen on a frugal, sustainable brewing method that doesn’t scrimp on caffeine or quality.
The trusty, tarnished moka pot is one of the most common items Italians take abroad to study or work – a portable guarantee of un buon caffè.
When Vicenza native Sofia Pagliarin took a job in Switzerland, the coffee was so bad she brought her moka to brew her own on a heat plate in the break room. When she was accepted in January for post-doctoral studies in Germany the moka and its spare parts were tucked into her suitcase.
“It is my morning ritual, of course, but it is also just part of being Italian, when you go overseas you always take your moka with you,” said Ms Pagliarin, 36, from her new home in Bamberg.
That is partly how the iconic stovetop espresso maker became so popular in Latin America and Australia, where large Italian émigré communities made the moka mainstream. It is considered an iconic “Made in Italy” object, displayed at the London Science Museum and the MOMA in New York.
Nielsen, the data analytics firm, has registered a boom in bars and cafes, with 150,000 coffee bars in Italy alone, including a Starbucks Reserve Roastery controversially opened in Milan in September.
But while more people appear to be enjoying coffee, moka makers have seen market share decline thanks to competition from coffee capsule machines, which have gained in popularity ever since George Clooney’s Nespresso adverts sparked the coffee pod craze more than a decade ago.
In 2017, the ground coffee market lost 6 per cent in volume in Italy, while capsule sales saw double digit sales growth (up 23 per cent from 2016) according to Nielsen.
“When it comes to large-scale distribution , sales of the capsules are growing rapidly while sales of ground coffee for the moka are declining – even here in Italy where 70 per cent of families have a moka in their home,” said Francesca Arcuri, communications director for Filicori Zecchini, one of Italy’s oldest coffee companies.
As of the end of September, Bialetti owed more than a half a million euros in unpaid salaries to its employees and millions to the Italian state in unpaid taxes and contributions.
Nonetheless, company officials said they are in the final phase of negotiating an urgent 35 million euro loan from the American hedge fund firm Och-Ziff Capital as part of a debt restructuring program and have applied for protection under Italy’s bankruptcy laws in a deal expected to be approved by the Brescia courts in November.
Company officials are optimistic these moves will allow operations – and moka production – to continue in the future.