Lever Espresso Machines

lever espresso machines

 

Continuing on our theme of fine-tuning, we thought we would take a moment to talk about lever espresso machines.

Lever-driven machines are manual espresso machines. If you remember our post on why you shouldn’t buy a cheap espresso machine, we reviewed steam driven and pump driven machines. We didn’t discuss levers in that post, as they aren’t ever cheap (as we defined the term) and they are a topic worthy of their own separate post.

One popular primer on manual machines described them as “about as hands on as you can get and still produce that beverage we know today as espresso.” They require a fair amount of skill to obtain consistent (and consistently good) results. It’s not uncommon to see a lever-oriented discussion feature a prominent disclaimer stating that lever espresso machines aren’t for newbies.

Mark Prince, the senior editor at CoffeeGeek and author of CoffeeKid, poetically described the outcome of his conversion experience. Like many converts (this CoffeeKrave writer included), his feelings (as we interpret his writings) gradually transformed from reluctance to respect, with a degree of transcendentalism wrapped up in the evolution.

I have to say I’m enthralled by the machine. It’s a stunner to look at, and there’s just some kinda je ne sais quoi about using it – without sounding all buddist here, you’re one with the machine, you are the machine. It’s true. There’s a certain artistry and feeling from using a lever machine that is pretty darned cool – and if you are into espresso as much for the culture, artistry, history and mystique as you are for the taste, all the better. – Mark Prince (speaking specifically of a La Pavoni machine), Archived Rants, March 16, 2002

 

The Basics of Lever Espresso Machines

With a manual espresso machine, the user (via the piston) provides the pressure needed to brew the espresso. The act of pulling down on a lever gave rise to the expression “pulling a shot.”

There are two types of lever espresso machines: spring lever and direct lever.

With a spring lever, the act of pulling down on the lever compresses an internal spring. Spring lever machines are capable of delivering constant pressure, and that constant pressure can (in the right hands, with practice) produce consistent high quality results.

The most common criticism of the commonly available spring lever espresso machines is their construction. One review (describing events leading up to the “coming soon” entry in our recommendations below) described the issue like this: “The chain of events runs something like; the machine is too light, so therefore the spring has to be light (otherwise you pull the machine over when you pull the lever), and therefore you can’t create the really dense mouthfeel that to my mind at least is an essential characteristic of real espresso.”

With a direct lever espresso machine, there is no spring. You, the operator, are literally the pump providing the pressure. The results can be very inconsistent and it takes . . .

{You know what’s coming here!}

. . . practice to get high quality results. Direct levers are the ultimate in direct control over the brewing process. For some (pressure profilers, for instance) that control is a good thing. Outside of the world of skilled baristas, the mastery of that control is usually the missing element. For the average home brewer, the variable pressure of direct levers leads to wildly inconsistent results—with the rare God shot thrown in to keep you trying.

 

lever espresso machines

 

Lever Extraction

The shots pulled from a lever espresso machine have a distinct flavor profile. In three words: softer, smoother and sweeter. Much of that difference comes from the pre-infusion and the water distribution—the even contact of the water column with the coffee bed.

{For a unique look at the results, Slayer Espresso produced this video of a shot being pulled from a lever machine with a naked portafilter.}

The appeal of the flavor profile, the degree of control afforded to the operator and the artistry of the mechanics is an irresistible combination for a select group of espresso aficionados.

 

Lever Espresso Machines: A Few Models to Consider

If you are feeling the {ahem} pull of the lever, we offer three recommendations for lever espresso machines to consider—one spring lever, one direct lever, and an indie alternative.

Spring Lever: Elektra Micro Casa a Leva S1C; $1349.00. Gorgeous Italian styling. Features a polished chrome finish, mounted pressure gauge, and a 1.8 liter brass boiler with 800 watt heating element. As always, research before investing at this level. A good place to start is this detailed performance review. We like this machine, but your mileage may vary.}

 

Direct Lever: La Pavoni Professional; $979 (sale price). The classic choice in direct levers. Features a 38 oz boiler capacity, solid brass boilers , mounted pressure gauge and 1000 Watts.

Buy | Amazon.com

The Indie Alternative: Londinium 1; (coming soon). This yet-to-be-released machine is a new take on spring lever designs, capitalizing on their consistent pressure while focusing on solid construction principles. Their blog will keep you posted on developments in anticipation of the tentatively scheduled September launch.

 

When you pull a shot, are you pulling on a lever? Describe your results with lever espresso machines, consistent or otherwise, in the comments below.

 

Main Photo: jakeliefer

Content Photo: Matt Foster

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