Lever Espresso Machines: Beauty and the Beast
One of the most wonderful things about courting espresso is that pulling that perfect shot is an ongoing elusive and amorphous proposition. For me, it’s like yoga. You dedicate a lot of time and energy and you get better as you go, but there is always room for more improvement. You’ll have good days, you’ll have not so good days, and at times you’ll hit perfection, but most of the time you’re evolving into the artform.
Craftmanship and palate are huge considerations once you have taken your devotion for espresso from the local café into your kitchen. It’s personal now. And the machine that you choose will determine the level at which you want to play.
If you happen to be considering bringing a lever espresso maker home, you have decided to play big. So in the spirit of honoring all true devotees of espresso making, I present to you this affectionate analysis of lever espresso machines. Follow-ups to this article will include reviews of the most beloved lever espresso machines, so stay tuned for more.
Espresso’s grandfather and primo inventor Achilles Gaggia, creator of one of the most beloved Italian espresso machine brands, offered coffee lovers the first lever espresso maker circa 1950. This game changer was the first real espresso machine in that it used high pressure rather than steam to create the coffee drink. Regardless of the pump-driven machines that would arrive 10 years later, true espresso aficionados consider the lever design to be the best method for delivering espresso. In fact, the expression “pulling a shot” is derived from the olden day baristas pulling the lever to extract the espresso.
A fine lever espresso machine offers the opportunity to fine-tune your espresso making into an artform, while learning to pull layered shots of espresso with complex flavor and texture. These machines also bring unparalleled beauty, charm and style into your modern cucina.
As far as ease-of-use is considered, the lever espresso machines are at the far side of that gradient. A new user will need time, patience and a lot of trial and error before she/he hones the skill that is required to draw that coveted exquisite shot. However, the rewards for putting in the time and effort are the romance of becoming a craftsman in the tradition of the true old-world barista and glorious, distinctive espresso drinks that can only be found in your kitchen.
How Lever Espresso Machines Work
The first thing to know is that only the heating unit in these machines is electrical. All else is manually-powered. There are no pumps, but some have spring-loaded levers that will take a portion of the angst out of guessing the proper force needed to achieve the correct pressure. The metal boiler, which outputs steam for frothing and boiling water for extraction, can take up to 10 minutes to heat up, and then you must allow the machine to cool off before setting out to refill and extract again. This is not the machine you want if you are in an environment where you are pulling a lot of shots and you want them as fast as possible.
Lever espresso machines with a spring piston will exhibit boiler pressure of 1.2 to 1.5 bar — just enough to force water into the grouphead, and consequently saturate the coffee. Springs in standard lever machines are typically adjusted to a more universal setting of 9 bar.
The pressure required to pull a shot is created by operating the lever and piston apparatus, which is pulled up to deliver the water to the coffee, and then down to apply the pressure that forces the water through it at a declining tempo. During the course of this action, a valve opens up between the boiler and the grouphead, allowing the brewing water to flow over the grouphead.
Your authority is excercised with the “recocking” action — a second pushing down of the lever — which re-opens the valve so that the piston fills up again. This will determine the volume of additional water to be delivered to the grouphead.
Simple. Not easy. Here more than with any other espresso machines out there, you will need to carefully consider the tamp, the grind and the water pressure and temperature. Even your very physical bearing and movement will make a difference with these fastidious machines. Mindful, strong and focused actions need to be acquired, so get on down to that yoga or martial arts class.
Below are some of the factors that you will need to consider when using a lever espresso machine.
First rule of thumb with a lever espresso machine — and for that matter, any espresso machine — is to keep it very clean. Make sure that every component of the machine that comes into contact with coffee is cleaned after every pulled shot. Lingering coffee oils will strongly affect the flavor, and not in a good way.
Every espresso lover will tell you to get the freshest roasted beans and to grind them yourself. Coffee is perishable after all, so older coffee will not produce the finest flavor. If you go this route, you will find that the most recommended grinder is the Rancilio Rocky conical burr grinder. Be sure that you get a grinder of this distinction or better. Investing in a lever machine indicates a craftsman mentality, and so you will want to maintain your artistic integrity with a quality grinder.
Coffee beans vary, and you might find that one coffee blend requires one type of pressure, and another blend requires a different one. Either way, the grind of the coffee ought to resemble small salt grains. Fine but still course, if that makes sense. Not a powder. This is a good guideline to get you started, but only experimentation will perfect your quest. A good rule of thumb is to begin by setting your grinder on the finest setting and fine tune upwards until you find the right grind for the espresso machine.
If you want to elevate your craft even one step further, grind only enough coffee beans for the shot you are currently pulling.
Tamping is a key factor in extracting great shots with any espresso machine. When it comes to lever machines, it may be even more important because with a lever espresso machine, you pull the lever down, hold it for 3 to 5 seconds in order to fill a piston chamber with water, and then slowly release up. The water therefore is delivered at a subsiding level of pressure. If the coffee is shabbily tamped, a sink shot will be the result, and you’ll be going back to the drawing board.
Water Quality and Temperature
Water quality is often overlooked, even by full time baristas. Distilled water is typically suggested, but using a good bottled water like Evian or Fuji water can texture your shot favorably. Or you may try a blend of distilled with the bottled. It’s up to you, but if you are going for a distinct and nuanced flavor profile, your water quality is important.
The water in the boiler is under pressure and sustained around 225˚ to 250˚— much hotter than boiling. In a pump-driven machine, water that hot would scorch the delicate coffee grounds and output a burnt and bitter shot. However, the lever espresso machines are designed to slough off enough heat so that the water has cooled to a perfect brewing temperature of 190˚to 250˚ by the time the water hits the substratum of coffee.
The Importance of Pre-infusion
Pre-infusion indicates the interval when water is saturating dry coffee, but not completely passing through under pressure. As the apprentice barista, you do control pre-infusion duration. Getting it right can make the difference between the mediocre and the exquisite. But it’s tricky, because there is no formula set in stone. It’s different for every machine, every coffee variety, every grind, and tamping pressure too. Experimentation is the only guideline you get, and lever machines will try you — perhaps frustrate you — until you get it right. Be prepared.
The Taste Difference
As described above, the crucial difference between the modern pump-driven espresso machines and the lever espresso machines is a higher temperature of water arriving at the coffee bed at a lower pressure for the pre-infusion stage and followed by a bit higher pressure which then gradually lessens along with the water temperature for the extraction. In addition, you have a stable column of water that is always contacting the entire coffee area in a perfectly even flow.
For these reasons, a lever shot is decidedly distinct, and more nuanced than what you can pull from a pump machine. Smoother, sweeter and according to the world’s most skilled baristas, far better espresso.
Some Final Notes
Some of the most ravishing Italian espresso makers are these charming lever machines. Solidly engineered of sturdy metal and notorious for their simple but brilliant internal design, the character of the espresso you can extract makes them a compelling choice for any level home barista. And because of their complete lack of complex mechanical parts, they serve their owners flawlessly for many years.
Granted, these machines also have their drawbacks. You don’t want to rely on a lever machine to push out a slew of espressos in a rush whilst hosting your soirée — regardless of the fact that it is a great conversation piece and will probably upstage you. And the learning curve of getting the machine to perform as you wish may take a lot of time and effort.
But if you are a fan of beauty and quality, and taking the time to hone a craft with honesty, curiosity and delight, then a lever espresso maker may just be the right choice for you.