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Why Lever Espresso Machines are Preferred by Many Espresso Enthusiasts

Why Lever Espresso Machines are Preferred by Many Espresso Enthusiasts

Manually-operated espresso machines are generally called "piston espresso machines" or "lever-operated espresso machines" or just "lever espresso machines." They make an excellent gift to any espresso enthusiast, and most of all, a wonderful gift to yourself.

A lever espresso machine will take a short learning period - mostly to experiment to find the best rate at which to pull the lever for your particular tastes. And according to many espresso enthusiasts, once you master this, you will produce the best espresso that is possible to produce. This is actually for a very simple reason that will become apparent as you read below.

The world's first (and still one of the world's best) lever espresso machine producer is La Pavoni of Italy. La Pavoni lever espresso machines are constructed of cast brass, and are built to last, and don't require much maintenance beyond the occasional descaling (which is not needed as often as is required for pump driven espresso machines), and the occasional polishing (for cosmetic reasons only). Lever espresso machines are beautiful to look at, and will add to any kitchen, bar, or dining-room decor.

When buying a lever espresso machine, keep in mind that it does require a slight amount of strength to apply the necessary force to extract espresso at the optimum rate. This should not be a problem for average people in good health. If you intend to use the espresso machine for entertaining (where you will be making many cups in rapid succession), the espresso machine should have a hot water reservoir.

For example, the La Pavoni 8-cup lever espresso machines have a 20 ounce boiler capacity, and the La Pavoni 16-cup lever espresso machines have a 38 ounce boiler capacity. Most lever espresso machines have a built-in milk frother, which is useful for preparing cappuccino and latte.

Because lever espresso machines allow you to vary the speed at which the water passes through the coffee, you can obtain the exact characteristics of espresso extraction that you want. This is the factor that allows you to make the best and most consistent espresso - much better than stovetop (steam) methods, and arguably better than automatic espresso machines.

The five most important things that will effect the quality of the final espresso extraction are:

  1. the quality of the coffee itself (including the mixture of beans and their freshness);
  2. the consistency and depth of the roast (and how recently it was done);
  3. the size and consistency of the grind, and the tamping process;
  4. the water temperature used in the extraction process; and
  5. the pressure and amount of time that the water is in contact with the coffee grounds.

Let's assume that you are starting with a high quality coffee that is to your liking, and that you've ground in and tamped it correctly, so that items #1-3 have been taken care of. Given this, we'll explain how lever espresso machines allow you to optimize the last two factors, #4 and #5.

In another of our articles about espresso extraction methods, we explained that stovetop espresso extraction is a generally way to make espresso, although the moka pots can look very nice as decor items in your kitchen or dining-room. One of the reasons for this is that the water is too hot.

To produce excellent espresso, the water should be just hot enough to extract the coffee flavor from the grounds, and no hotter than this. Ideally, the water should be between 195 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and steam under pressure can be even hotter. High-pressure steam will literally burn the coffee grounds, which produces a poor result.

All automatic espresso machines and lever espresso machines with boilers will maintain the water temperature correctly for high-quality espresso extraction. So in this sense, "water temperature" (item #4, above) is solved, once we get away from the stovetop, and use a real espresso machine.

So the final things needed to optimize the espresso extraction are the pressure, and the amount of time that the (properly heated) water remains in contact with the coffee grounds. First, note that the grind for espresso is a fine grind - not as fine as for Turkish coffee (where the "coffee grounds" are actually a coffee powder that dissolve into the brew), but much finer than for regular drip coffee. This fine grind of coffee accomplishes two things:

  1. it increases the total surface area of coffee within a fixed volume of grounds, which enables more flavor to be imparted to the extraction; and
  2. when the ground coffee is tamped, the result is a dense "puck" of coffee, which requires more pressure to do the extraction in a fixed time period, or it requires more time to do the extraction at a fixed pressure.
It is this last item (#2) that distinguishes the lever espresso machine from automatic espresso machines.

Assuming that the grind and the tamp are correct (so as to provide adequate surface area and adequate resistance to pressure), the key is to a good extraction is to control the amount of time used in the extraction process. We want the water to be in contact with the grounds long enough to extract the essential oils (which is where the coffee flavor comes from), but if that process continues for too long, the process will impart a bitter flavor to the final espresso. Ideally, the espresso extraction process should take at least 25 seconds (to extract sufficient flavor), but should not continue for more than 30 seconds, or a bitterness will ensue.

In our article on brewing espresso, we explain that not only should the grind be correct, but it is essential to have a clean portafilter. And the coffee grounds should be tamped into the portafilter to produce an appropriately dense "puck" of coffee. The reason that the portafilter needs to be cleaned frequently is that mineral deposits in the water will buildup on the mesh, thereby making the holes in the mesh slightly smaller, which will change the amount of pressure required to do the extraction in a fixed amount of time. Similarly, if the grounds are not tamped consistently, the amount of pressure required will be different for a consistent extraction time.

Automatic espresso machines generally do the extraction with a fixed amount of pressure. The variable in the espresso extraction will then be time. If the tamping of the coffee grounds is inconsistent, or if the portafilter is not cleaned regularly, or if the espresso machine (including tubes and hoses) are not consistently descaled, the espresso extraction times will vary, and the quality of the espresso will deteriorate with continued use of the espresso machine, until it is again fully cleaned.

One method of getting the coffee ground density correct is to use coffee pods. If you are tamping loose coffee grounds, you will need to learn to use the same force each time. For automatic espresso machines, the way to control the other parameters is through frequent maintenance and cleaning.

Lever espresso machines are much more forgiving, because YOU control the espresso extraction time with your own "elbow grease," and strength. If you did not tamp exactly so, or if there is some mineral buildup on your portafilter, it does not matter as much. The lever espresso machine is much more forgiving, because it allows you to adapt to the varying conditions. All you need to do is apply a little more strength to pull the lever down at the same rate to do consistent espresso extractions. It also helps to watch the clock as you pull on the lever, so that each pull is the same.

La Pavoni Lever Espresso Machines

In 1960, La Pavoni started producing two lines of lever espresso machines: a domestic line of espresso machines called "Europiccola" (8-cup capacity) specially designed for home use, and a "Professional" line (16-cup capacity) of espresso machines designed for bars, restaurants, and catering firms. The "Professional" models of La Pavoni lever espresso machines have external pressure gauges. Both of these lines of lever espresso machines are popular and are frequently sold on our website. All of these espresso machines have a chrome body finish, and are available in a range of different base finishes.

Since then, La Pavoni introduced a "Romantica" pair of lever espresso machines (8-cup or 16-cup), which featured dome-shaped tops, and came in a beautiful brass finish, with hardwood trim (handles and knobs). Those models have been discontinued, and are now collector's items.

But in 2005, to commemorate their 100-year anniversary, La Pavoni released a new series of lever espresso machines called "Stradavari," which were designed by Carlo Gallizi, who took inspiration from the legendary artisan of violin-making, Antonio Stradavari. The Stradavari is sure to become a collector's item too, and would make a wonderful family heirloom.

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers