Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Java Enabled: Mokka Express, Revisited

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2009 at 3:08 PM

My Bialetti Mokka Express stovetop coffee maker was the first specialized percolator I ever bought. With a newly christened driver's license, I used to drive to J. Viviano's and Sons on the Hill to buy Italian coffee in search of the promise of real espresso at home. It will be no surprise to the home espresso brewer that what I ended up with was far removed from the sweet, complex flavors that come with good espresso.

My Mokka Express isn't to blame, though. I am.

Stumptown is a name any serious coffee drinker knows. The iconic Portland roaster is one of the central voices in America's coffee conversation. Its reach pushes the limits of what it means to be an "independent" coffee roaster. With a presence already established on the West Coast, the company recently opened its first store in New York City.

New York
magazine actually greeted Stumptown's arrival in New York with a feature story. (When's the last time a coffee shop got that kind of press?) It was this article that piqued my interest in Stumptown's Web site and ultimately rekindled my affections for the moka pot.

click to enlarge WWW.BIALETTIUSA.COM
Regular readers of my column know that consumer education is one of the biggest goals of ambitious independent coffee roasters and cafes. As I perused Stumptown's Web site, I came across a "coffee for dummies" section dedicated to every conceivable style of coffee brewing. I find the process of making coffee one of its most endearing traits, so reading through the unbelievably detailed descriptions and recommendations for the "perfect" cup of coffee was a true treat. Scrolling past the drip machine and another method that looked more like a bong than a coffee maker, I found my Mokka Express. As I read the recommended method for preparing a cup of coffee, I realized that I had been cooking -- not brewing -- my coffee all these years.

If you're unfamiliar with how a moka pot works, here's a quick primer. The pot is made up of a base that holds the water while a solid filter rests on top. The coffee is pushed through the filter and up into a small carafe above, which catches the coffee as it comes out through a spout, like the stamen of a flower. It's essentially an old-school percolator that draws its heat from the stovetop. The greatest difference is the concentration possible with a moka pot versus the larger quantity that a classic percolator offers.

One of the first things Stumptown recommends is to forget the way people on TV use these moka pots. Keep an eye out the next time you watch a cooking show and see Giada or Ina make coffee this way. They leave the coffee percolating on the stove until the pot coughs like a Bohemian heroine with consumption. This is how I assumed the pot worked -- and why my coffee always tasted slightly metallic or burnt.

The first surprise I got from the Stumptown site was the recommendation to heat the water before pouring it into the base. While it doesn't explain why, I assume the pre-heated water comes to a boil quicker than cold water, avoiding the coffee's unnecessary exposure to heat. The next surprise was how early it recommended pulling the pot off the heat: as soon as the coffee streams continuously from the spout. And, in a final gesture of connoisseurship, Stumptown recommended wrapping the base in a cool bar towel. This stops the brewing process, "resulting in coffee that is sweeter and more full bodied." Think of it like the first press for extra-virgin olive oil.

Like the first press of olive oil, though, there is relatively little final product to enjoy. This approach to brewing produces coffee similar to espresso's concentrated flavor and accentuates the coffee's sweet notes. What it lacks is espresso's distinct body. I couldn't help but think that for all the flavor in the coffee, there wasn't enough body to balance it. One thing's for sure, though, the serving is size spot on when compared to espresso.

Readers, beware: Stumptown recommends keeping the lid open until the coffee flows freely. When the coffee brews at the right speed, it silently slithers out of the percolator, so a watchful eye is required. Trust me: You won't hear it at this stage with the lid closed. While this seems innocent enough, anyone who uses a moka pot knows that too much heat too quickly or just wandering away from the stove can result in a sudden eruption of coffee. This can lead to a Krakatoa on your stovetop and even a burn. Always make sure that the two slits at the mouth of the percolator are facing away from you when you brew.

My mistake was first assuming that my moka pot made espresso. After that didn't work, I assumed it made drip coffee. The truth is somewhere inbetween. Once you know what you can expect to get out of your method of choice, the steps come naturally. The real lesson about a brewing guide like Stumptown's is not so much in the actual steps as learning what to expect from your method.

Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

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