Rivals too hot for Italy's classic coffee pot

Bialetti blames popularity of new capsule drinks for move to Eastern Europe

Finding unlikely inspiration from the inner workings of an early washing machine, Alfonso Bialetti created a 20th-century design classic – the iconic Moka Express percolator – and the ultimate expression of an Italian passion for making coffee.

Now, 77 years later, and under assault from so-called mock-mochas and a new generation of flashy hi-tech espresso machines, the company that put a coffee maker into practically every one of the nation's kitchens is closing up in Italy and heading to Eastern Europe.

The move has inflamed opinion in Italy, where – unlike in the rest of Europe – the little pot has helped to see off the threat of the ubiquitous, high-volume offerings of the mass-market chains. Instead, Alfonso's company, Bialetti, has sold more than 250 million of the eight-sided stove-top coffee makers.

However, in the past three decades, other leading designers including Alessi, Enzo Mari and Bruno Munari have come up with alternative espresso machines for Italians' daily caffeine fix. It is some of these devices that have been blamed for the Moka's fall from grace. The machines, which dispense espresso from the increasingly popular one-dose coffee capsule, were singled out for blame by Italian newspapers yesterday.

These single helpings of coffee, with one make heavily advertised with the help of A-list stars, including George Clooney, have eaten into the Moka market. One manufacturer, Gattinara, last year saw its production of coffee capsules rise to 2.2 billion, as millions of coffee drinkers in Italy and beyond bought into the hype that the capsules provide an espresso virtually as good as one served in a coffee bar. Some fans of the aluminium Moka maintain, however, that it provides the best cup of coffee.

The factory began making aluminium products in 1919 but rose to fame in 1933 with Bialetti's creation. It was immediately recognisable thanks to its mascot logo, a caricature of its inventor: a little man with a big nose and a moustache, dressed in a dark jacket, striped trousers and bow tie.

A spokesman for Bialetti told La Stampa newspaper that it faced heavy competition from the plethora of low-cost mock-mochas that had flooded the market in recent years. "There's too much low-cost competition," he said.

The company announced the closures yesterday but did not set a precise date for ending production at its original plant near Omegna in Piedmont, just north-west of Milan, which employs 120 people, Ansa reported. Unions are opposed to the move and want the regional government to step in. The president of the province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Massimo Nobili, said: "There can't be any negotiations regarding the closure of the factory. And everyone shares this position."

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