Manual espresso machines - or more commonly referred to as lever espresso machines - are about as hands on as you can get and still produce that beverage we know today as espresso. These machines can frustrate, infuriate, and leave you disappointed. They can also produce the best shots of espresso you'll ever have. Lever machines hands on with a capital H.
Often considered to put the "romance" in espresso, lever machines in history were the first espresso machines to produce what we know as modern day espresso, that is, espresso produced with a high pressure, not with steam power. Since 1947, lever machines have changed what coffee is capable of delivering. They've also ruined more quality coffee than just about anything else on the market today that produces espresso.
Scared yet? No? Well let's find out what makes manual lever machines tick, and whether or not they are a match for you.
Within the scope of "manual machines" there are two subclasses, with one being even more "hands on" than the other. The two subclasses are "spring piston lever" machines and "direct lever" machines. And there aren't many models available in either subclass. Let's start with the easier of the two to use.
The Spring Piston Lever Machine
| Elektra Micro Casa a Leva Spring Piston Lever |
This is the most commonly available spring piston lever machine today. It steams well, and pulls a fantastic shot - if you know how to use the machine well enough.
Spring piston lever machines operate on the principle of having an internal, calibrated spring that is used to push water through a bed of ground coffee at a specific and declining pressure. You, as the operator of the machine, use a lever to compress or "cock" the spring into its starting position. Letting go of the lever leaves the spring to do the actual work of pushing water through the bed of coffee. Typically, these machines have a boiler that runs at "steaming" temperatures, and they are designed so you can pull a shot and steam milk right away.
You can usually recognize a spring piston lever machine by the resting position of its lever - it will be pointing up. Pushing down on the lever cocks the spring, and letting go of the lever lets the spring do its thing. One example of a spring piston machine is the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva.
These machines are still very much a manual, hands on way to make coffee, even if the spring is doing some of the physical work. Why? Because as the home barista operating this machine, it's up to you to determine:
- how long you want the preinfusion to take place
- how much overall water you want to flow through the bed of coffee (by recocking the spring in the middle of the pull)
- the optimal time to pull the shot, based on your knowledge of the machine's operation .
I'd like to address each point more specifically, to give you more of an idea why a manual espresso machine may (or may not) suit you. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive look at this machine class; just something to give you an idea of what you may be in for! And please note, a lot of these points also relate to direct lever machines.
Preinfusion is a big factor in producing a quality shot of espresso. With both spring piston and direct lever espresso machines, you control something that most semi automatic and automatic espresso machine users have no control over - how long the brewing water "sits" over the bed of coffee, resting as it were at neutral or boiler pressure. Boiler pressure in a spring piston lever espresso machine is typically 1.2 to 1.4 bar, or barely above atmospheric pressure - just enough to push water into the piston grouphead, and soak and infuse the bed of coffee. (Springs in lever machines are usually calibrated to around 9 bar or about 135 lbs of pressure per square inch, the pressure that most pump driven machines are also set to.)
Preinfusion is one of those tricky things that can make or break a shot. To take maximum advantage of preinfusion, you really have to be in tune with your grind, your dose, the machine's water temperatures, and every other variable that comes into play in making good espresso; , simply knowing how to preinfuse properly is not enough. That's the reason that I'm not just giving you a hard and fast rule here on how long to preinfuse. I can't - it's different for every machine, every coffee, every freshness level, every grind, every filter basket size, the works. It is something that comes with practise. And manual machines require a lot of patience and practise to get the most out of them.
Amount of water used
Just like with a semi automatic espresso machine, a manual machine allows you to control how much water is used overall in the shot output. (Automatic machines do too, but once you program it, it always uses the same amount, until you change the programming.)
With a manual machine, you get to control not only how much water flows through the bed of coffee, but when you want to introduce the extra water. Manual machines, both the spring and direct lever types, have a cavity in the grouphead that fills up with brewing water once you've fully engaged the lever (known as cocking the spring on the spring piston machines). What happens is at some point in the lever push (or pull), a valve opens up between the boiler and grouphead, and brewing water moves over to the grouphead. thanks to the boiler's slightly elevated pressure. You can't really change this initial volume, except with a little tweaking on how long you preinfuse (as you continue to preinfuse, a bit more water creeps in as the bed of coffee becomes more and more saturated).
| The "spring" in the Spring Lever Machine |
This is the spring inside the brewing piston on an Elektra Micro Casa. These are easily serviceable and even replaceable, if needed.
The real control comes in at the point when you decide to introduce more water, after the initial load. You do this by recocking the spring on the piston lever machine - pushing the lever down again, and once again opening the valve between boiler and machine so the piston once again fills up. You can do it when only 1/4 of the initial brewing water has been used, when 1/2 has been used, or when almost all of it has been used - and by doing so, you also control how much volume of new brewing water is brought into the grouphead piston. This is another one of these hands on elements that really teaches you a lot about what goes into making a great shot.
Knowing when to get the best shot
Spring piston lever machines (and direct levers as well) are designed, for the most part, to let you steam and brew at the same time. This means the water in the boiler is under pressure and maintained at a temperature range of about 225F-250F - or dozens of degrees above boiling, if it were at normal pressure (water stays in liguid form at higher temperatures than boiling, if under pressure). Water temperatures that high normally torch ground coffee, resulting in a very bitter shot. The water needs to be at this temperature to a) provide enough steam for frothing milk, and b) to "push" water from boiler to grouphead while pulling a shot.
These machines are engineered to overcome that high initial temperature, so you don't end up with bitter, burnt shots. The piston / grouphead is a physical mass separated from the machine, and is engineered in a heatsink / radiating design that leeches off just enough temperature, so by the time the brewing water is drawn into the grouphead's water cavity, the water is at better brewing temperatures - around 190-205F. Under ideal conditions.
There are several problems with this design. It all works when you use the machine the way the engineers and factory workers did when first designing and then testing the machine - typically, they turn the machine on, let it warm up, flush a bit of water through the brew group, then pull their shots. The design falls down when you leave the machine on for hours, or pull back to back shots - eventually, the heatsink engineering built into the machine loses part of its ability to dissipate heat, and the temperature starts to climb up. It rarely gets above 212F (boiling at sea level) on most machines, but it can climb.
So what do you do when you have a coffee blend that you know likes its water around 200F? or 196F? or 204F (through a lot of trial and error)? You have to learn how to temperature "surf" your machine. Fortunately, manual machines allow for a lot of temperature surfing ability. For instance, you can pull a shot with the entire machine turned off (or even unplugged), once it is heated up. Or you can heat it up, warm up the group with a water flush, pull your shot, unplug it, let it rest for a minute, and pull another shot, getting more or less the same grouphead temperature.
How do you find out these things? Again, it's not in the scope of this guide to tell you how - this is where the hands on stuff comes into play - you're going to have to learn this through your own trial and error, and this is why you have to be really keen on being a hands on barista in the home if you want to own a lever machine. And that is the point of this page - to give you an understanding that these machines are very hands on.
Direct Lever Machines
| La Pavoni Professional Lever Machine |
This direct lever machine uses your hand as the pump. Note it has the froth aiding device attached - fortunately, La Pavonis can easily swap this out for the traditional steam wand (both are included with the machine)
A lot of what has been said above about spring piston lever machines also relates to direct lever machines. You can control the preinfusion; some of the machines (though not all) are set up to brew and steam concurrently; and you control how much water flows through the bed of coffee.
Also, as mentioned previously in regard to spring piston lever machines, you can usually tell a direct lever machine by the position of the lever at rest. Whereas spring pistons usually have the lever elevated in the resting position, direct lever espresso machines rest with the lever in the down position.
One other big difference between direct lever and spring pistons is that you are the "pump" on a direct lever. You are the one applying pressure to the water, by pushing down on a lever, to brew a shot. That's about as hands on as you can get. And it requires a lot of practise and a good "touch" to get a great shot.
And since every coffee is different, you may find that one coffee blend requires one type of pressure, and another blend needs a different pressure to achieve the proverbial "god shot". You may find, as many high end baristas are just starting to suspect, that varying the pressure during the entire shot pulling process leads to a better shot. (Pressure profiling, as it is called, is absolutely bleeding edge stuff for pro barista discussions these days - but La Pavoni owners have been doing it for decades already!).
This is all true romance and hands on stuff, but also something that can be incredibly frustrating. To go this route, the route of a direct lever, and get so good at it that you intrinsically know how to get the most out of every shot you pull, is to pretty much reach barista nirvana.
Pavoni is the main manufacturer of direct lever machines on the market today, but they also make machines that are rebadged as various Gaggia models. Pavoni has two popular versions, the Europiccola which has two thermostats and cannot steam and brew at the same time, and the Professional, which can, because of the heatsink design of its grouphead. The Olympia Cremina is a direct lever machine as well.
So is a manual machine for you?
If you started reading this Guide with the impression that manual espresso machines would be simpler to operate than their high-tech cousins, you're probably having second thoughts now. The process of creating good espresso depends on a number of variables, and semi auto / auto machines can take some significant ones off of your hands - whether that's for good or bad is a matter for you to decide.
In some respects, choosing between a manual espresso machine and a semi auto / auto espresso machine is much like choosing between a get-around-town car with automatic transmission and a classic sports car with four on the floor. It's your decision - do you just want a no-fuss cappuccino every day? Or do you want to immerse yourself in the art of creating espresso?
Whichever route you choose, enjoy it! It's only your first machine, after all... and if the espresso bug really bites you, it probably won't be your last.