We are in the year 2024 and the entire coffee world seems divided between those who make their coffee with capsules and the “specialty coffee makers”… Everything? No! A small device still resists, as always, the invader: the Italian coffee maker. The question is: how can we get the most out of this miraculous thing that is about to turn 100 years old?
The two big trends in current coffee. The world of coffee, like almost everything related to food in recent years, is undergoing very intense changes. On the one hand, technology is making it ridiculously easy to consume coffee with almost finished products: the examples are countless, from capsule coffee makers to ready-to-drink coffees or hybrids like Coca-Cola with coffee.
The specialization. On the other hand, “specialty coffee” has meant a revaluation of a drink that in the roasted Spain She was especially battered. With it, not only have new varieties of quality coffee arrived, but numerous devices have also appeared to make coffee in the strangest ways. Thus, the world of coffee lovers has been filled with terms such as cold brew o aeropress.
Between both sides, the Italian coffee maker (or mocha) survives the passage of time as one of the simplest systems for preparing coffee. Simple, yes; but not obvious. Science has a lot to say to make this coffee maker compete head-to-head with the rest of the new devices.
How does an Italian coffee maker work? Since we are used to them (and a forgotten one always appears in any kitchen cupboard), we very easily forget that Italian coffee makers are a small genius of 20th century engineering.
At a constructive level, this type of coffee maker is made up of three pieces: a base or reservoir chamber (where the water is placed), a funnel or saucepan (where the coffee is placed); and an upper chamber shaped like a jar with a lid that has a finer filter and a rubber at the bottom (and is where pops up the coffee already prepared). However, on a functional level, it is usually easier to think of it as two large compartments (the lower part and the upper part) connected by a narrow tube (in the middle of which is the coffee tank).
The general idea is that as the water in the lower compartment heats up (and turns part of it into a gaseous state), the pressure inside the coffee maker increases significantly. Above all, if we compare it with the pressure inside the tube (which is normal atmospheric pressure). This pressure differential is what ends up causing the water to rise through the tube, infuse with the coffee, and end up in the upper container).
An all-round coffee maker, but with problems. It is a simple, affordable and fast system to make coffee espresso. A heat source is enough to start it, it is easy to balance the amount of water-coffee and the same system warns that the coffee is ready (when the water in the lower container runs out, bubbles and a characteristic sound are generated).
However, this all-terrain nature means that it presents many problems that do not make it a good option for coffee lovers. In the coffee makers espresso, the water has a certain temperature when infused with the coffee. In the Italian ones, and although the physical mechanism reduces the range of possibilities, there are so many factors at play (the hardness of the water, the strength of the burner, the ambient temperature, that of the liquid in question…) that it is very difficult to control the exact conditions under which water is infused with coffee.
And poor conditions can destroy the drink (or, in the best of cases, worsen its organoleptic properties). As our DAP colleagues remind us, “the high temperatures reached by the Italian coffee maker have a tendency to extract bitter components.”
Sorry I splashed you. Hence, many baristas recommend making coffee with the lid raised. And if we review the physical mechanism used by the Italian coffee maker, we will realize that the lid only has one function: to prevent splashing. The process is based on a set of pressures and no, the lid does not intervene in it.
For this reason, advocates of lifting the lid explain that seeing how the coffee comes out of the duct is the simplest indicator to be able to adjust the temperature of the burner, adjust the final result and remove the coffee maker from the heat when there is no longer any water. It is worth remembering that the recommendations always tell us to use low heat and lower it even more when the liquid begins to come out. Without a feedback Visually, adjusting the temperature is more complicated.
Don’t you lose the aroma? That is what some detractors of the technique maintain: that if we use it with the lid open, part of the aroma can be lost. It could be the case, I am not going to deny it: but the loss (taking into account that, ultimately, the lid is not closed to a vacuum) is almost anecdotal. That is, if done correctly, there are no big differences (if any) in the final product.
For this reason, taking into account the benefits of exercising good control during the coffee-making process, the open lid seems an excellent option.
Tips to get the most out of Italian coffee makers. “Power without control is useless”, but once we learn to control the coffee maker we have to think about how to enhance the drink. And, in this case, there are a handful of tips that help us create a perfect coffee.
- The grinding point is a good example. It must be medium; that is, not as fine as for a superautomatic of espressonot as thick as in a filter coffee maker or cold brew. To make sure you get the point right, a good heuristic is that the coffee “should take about a minute to finish brewing.” If it takes less, the grind could be too coarse and if it takes longer, it could be too fine.”
- Buying coffee beans and getting a grinder guarantees a “freshness” of the product that is very difficult to find in factory-ground coffees.
- Another good tip is related to water: experts usually recommend heating quality mineral water (still) until it starts to boil and filling the coffee maker tank with it just below the valve. This allows you to control the temperature, time and infusion of the coffee much better.
- And finally, do not compact the coffee in the tank: due to the influence of espresso machines in coffee shops, many people tend to compact the ground coffee. But in this type of coffee makers, not only is it not necessary, but it is counterproductive. Just pour the coffee and fill it level.
- One of the best ideas is to cool the Italian once the process is finished to nip it in the bud. That is, when it starts to ring, close the lid and place it under cold water tap. Then, ready to consume.
It’s not that relevant. We emphasize something that, obviously, is often forgotten: all this is important, but it is not the most important thing. At a physical-chemical level, it does not offer substantive improvements. All of these tricks are behavioral techniques that make us pay more attention to the extraction process and prevent us from neglecting the process. The determining factor, if we want to drink good coffee, is to Buy good coffee. Natural, grained and, of course, never roasted.
With these tips and good control, the coffee should come out in optimal conditions. It would be enough to remove it from the heat as soon as it begins to emit the characteristic sound, integrate it with gentle movements and serve it immediately. To preserve its organoleptic properties, it is advisable not to reheat it.
Image | Brent Ninaber – Alborzagros
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*An earlier version of this article was published in February 2023