Stovetop Espresso

Recently, I came to realize that I occasionally enjoy a small cup of espresso after dinner. I have a nearby coffee shop that supplies me with my morning latte fix, but they close in the late afternoon, and besides, it’s not so convenient to go to the coffee shop for after-dinner espresso. Therefore, I’d like to be able to make espresso at home. I could buy a decent espresso maker for my home, but I don’t see the value of a $300 machine for the occasional after-dinner espresso (about once per week).

With that in mind, I did a little research, and I found a couple of lower-cost alternatives available.

Bialetti Moka Express

Various sizes of Bialetti Moka pots

The first option is the Bialetti Moka Express, which is a stovetop “espresso” maker. It’s very common in Italy, where it was invented in 1933 by none other than a Mr. Alfonso Bialetti. Numerous companies now manufacturer moka pots, but the Bialetti design is unmistakably classic. It comes in a variety of sizes: 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12-cup models. Most stores carry only the 3 or 6-cup model. In San Francisco, the Caffe Trieste retail store in North Beach (located adjacent to the Caffe Trieste coffee shop) carries all the sizes, including the hard-to-find 1-cup model, and their prices are the cheapest I’ve found. Expect to pay $16 to $20 for the smaller sizes.

I say this pot makes “espresso” because it’s not technically an espresso, which requires a different extraction than what the Moka pot offers. Consequently, one might say the Bialetti makes a “moka”, a “moka espresso”, or “stovetop espresso”. Still, it makes a respectably good cup.

To use the Bialetti, fill the bottom half with cold water up to the release valve, insert the basket full of coffee grinds, then screw on the top half. Place the pot over low heat, and wait for the water to boil the coffee up into the top chamber.

Some usage notes I’ve gathered from others on the Internet. (1) The Moka Express is designed to work with the coffee basket full. Therefore, use a pot size that is appropriate for your needs. Under-filling a 3-cup model to get a single serving will not work. (2) Do not pack the coffee grinds into the basket. This is not an espresso machine, and packing the grinds will prevent the water from passing though properly. (3) The grind of the coffee will affect the results. I’ve only recently bought my Bialetti, so I’ve only started experimenting with it. However, I’m told the Bialetti requires a grind more similar to a drip-coffee than an espresso grind. A typical espresso grind may be too fine for this pot, preventing water from passing through the coffee. (4) Your results will vary, depending on a variety of factors — bean variety, degree of bean roasting, grind level, etc.

Handpresso Wild

The Handpresso Wild

The second low-cost option for home-made espresso is one that a friend mentioned to me recently. The Handpresso Wild is a handheld device which requires pumping to reach the necessary pressures for extraction. Unfortunately, neither he nor I have ever used one.

The Handpresso works by inserting an espresso pod, hand-pumping it a number of times to reach 15 bars of pressure, adding some hot water, and pushing a button. In order to get hot espresso, you’ll have to boil water in a separate vessel first, then add it to the Handpresso capsule.

The Handpresso is an interesting idea. Expect to pay about US $120 for one.


I’m interested in hearing other people’s opinions of these devices, as well as other devices I should consider. I’m also interested in suggestions of books which can bring me up to speed on aspects of espresso — benefits of various extraction methods, varieties of beans, growing regions, roasting levels, etc.