Consider a lever Espresso machine

by Reiss Gunson on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 02:22

I have been weighing up in my mind for ages whether or not to make this post as lever machines tend to divide the coffee community like a scythe. It is not a sly attempt to talk you into the superb Olympia Cremina we offer, but rather the result of my continual musings on the best machine to sink your hard earned cash into at the lower-mid market price points

If money is no object, or you have a sponsor who plies you with free espresso equipment to promote on their behalf then these considerations fall away obviously, but most people are not currently in that position.

I have come to the conclusion that lever machines cop a lot of unfair criticism. yes i know you can criticise the less expensive machines for poor thermal stability and so on, but are they any worse than electric pump machines at a similar price point?

I would also qualify my comments further i saying that i am thinking about the typical Londinium Espresso customer, i.e. one who is focused on espresso, doesn’t need to turn out a large number of coffees in a short period of time, and only occasionally uses the steaming wand.

Yesterday I was in Harrods and it was interesting to see that they now sell primarily 2 types of machines; pod machines & bean to cup. Finito. The vast array of choice they used to offer has all been swept away. Both of these types of machine are pitching to the convenience market, so that obviously reflects what the bulk of the market wants.

I was offered the opportunity to sample the coffee from the bean to cup machines and i have to say i was very disappointed. Was the coffee offensive? No, not at all. In fact it was completely the opposite of the that; bland, primarily due to being underextracted. It was the same last time i tried a bean to cup machine. Despite the ‘oh yes sir its 15bar all round on this machine’ i remain unconvinced. I also suspect the grinders aren’t even on nodding terms with what a Mazzer delivers. I find this unacceptable at this ‘top of mkt’ price point.

Was the machine easy to use? Certainly. Did it look nice? Yes, although the flimsy plastic cowlings and fake chrome on plastic isn’t really acceptable at this price point in my opinion. These bean to cup machines are not inexpensive, and place you up into the Olympia price point for the top models. For me there was no comparison. The Olympia makes coffee as good as a commercial machine, and given the poor coffee and lack of care associated with almost all retail coffee offerings the coffee you make at home on an Olympia will be on a different planet to your local cafe and at a fraction of the cost once you have the machine.

Anyway, the point is that the entry level bean to cup models of this particular brand started at £650. While i dont doubt they are available on better terms elsewhere i started thinking that for a lot less money, assuming you are an espresso fanatic (i.e. not a milk fiend) and dont need to crank out a row of espressos in a hurry, then a lever machine like the La Pavoni really does make sense. A good friend of mine has owned his for many years now. He hammers the daylights out of it every day. Ok, sure he is a single guy & not catering to 10 supper guests at a time, and tends to drink espresso or macchiato.

During that time he has had to service the seals on the machine, but this is true of any espresso machine after 5 years of daily use. The espresso he makes from the La Pavoni leaves all the bean to cup machines i have tried for dead.

Sure, i am the first to admit that a bean to cup machine offers convenience, you dont get coffee grinds spread all over the kitchen, etc, etc.

But…Londinium Espresso really is a place for purists, people with a focus on ultimate quality over convenience. A perfect espresso made with care on a Saturday morning, or after lunch on a sunday.

if your espresso needs are as i describe above you should give the La Pavoni, and the other lever machines some serious consideration. Lever machines do take a little bit of effort to master, but it isnt that difficult & we are very happy to help, without obligating you.

Bella Barista also have a spring lever machine (Ponte Vecchio from memory) on their website, which i havent tried myself, but from what i can see it is very attractively priced. You also have the Elektra machines, and no doubt there are others which i am not aware of

At the price point a La Pavoni delivers far far better espresso than an electric pump machine. Put the money you save on the La Pavoni into a great grinder, at least a Rancillo Rocky, or step up to a Mini Mazzer if you can. The La Pavoni grinder is OK, but it is a bit flimsy in construction.

The trick to the lever machine is weighing the ground coffee until you are able to simply visualise what 8g (or whatever weight you want to go with) looks like in the portafilter before you tamp it. The other thing is to shift the lever so the piston is in the open position and allow the coffee puck to pre-infuse for around 8s before moving the lever to force the water through the coffee puck.

I readily concede that they are not the weapon of choice for lattes & cappuccinos, or rolling out 10 espressos in a hurry for a dinner party.

In addition to the performance considerations the lever machines are easily maintained, they are silent in operation (having no electric pump) & in my opinion they are a lot more attractive.

So in summary do give a lever machine some serious consideration, depending on what your needs are.

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