My fascination with lever espresso machines stretches way back to the time I saw my first real commercial machine, in Auckland in 1987. The machine in question was being used in what we Kiwi's would call a “Milk Bar” type coffee shop, in downtown Auckland City. The machine was a venerable Italian 2 grouper, complete with the then obligatory dome. I cant remember the type of machine, but I do remember it was not a machine where the dome was part of the workings of the machine (such as an older LaPavoni or Elektra). Watching the barista pull the lever down was pure theatric and part and parcel of the coffee experience in this Cafe.
Fast forward 22 years (zzzzzzzzoom) and finally I have my hands on a lever machine I can call my own. a 3 Group Rapallo Astoria, in chrome and gold trimmings, a beauty to look upon.
My more recent obsession with levers begun over a dinner of dried noodles and broth at a remote location in Indonesia. I was at this particular place because of an electrical problem with a more modern machine installed several weeks previous. The problem was caused by a highly unstable and spiking inbound electrical current that had first wrecked a stabilizer and then (when the stabilizer had been bypassed caused havoc with the machine. To readers in the US or other developed countries this may sound unusual. In Indonesia (especially outside of the big cities) electrical mayhem is not at all uncommon.
Anyway, while chewing on the noodles the owner of the machine brought up the idea of buying a lever machine. No electrical needed, it could run on just gas and either main water supply or water pumped up to the machine by foot pump.
It got me thinking and through reading more on line, through BX contacts (thanks Manggo Queen and ChrisK) and finally by going on a trip to South Central Italy, I decided to take th plunge and go for a lever machine.
So far I have not been disappointed. The Italian trip, getting a chance to be up close and personal with 2, 3 and even 4 group lever espresso machines was hugely beneficial and recommended for anyone serious about committing to a lever for a busy Cafe. Watching a number of videos on “the correct way to use a lever machine” on U-Tube was not particular helpful and I would not really recommend this approach. Finally a trip to close by BX'er, Danny in Singapore, was worthwhile and true testament to how well this network succeeds in bringing coffee professionals together. Watching his Barista at work convinced me that a machine could produce great shots in a busy cafe environment outside of Italy.
For those not familiar with how a lever espresso machine operates. It is actually quite simple. There are no procon rotary pumps connected to the machine to drive water through the heat exchangers and groups. No potentially fiddly parts such as solenoid valves or flow meters. Everything is essentially mechanical, including the valve systems that prevent water flowing back out of the boiler.
The term to “pull a shot” comes from the lever action, but is actually somewhat misleading. The action of “the pull” involves pulling the lever down, and holding it there for 3 to 5 seconds, to fill the piston chamber with water. The lever is then slowly released up until it encounters pressure, then left to work its way from roughly 40 degrees up to vertical. Tamping plays a huge role in getting the process to extract correctly, just as it does in prepping a shot using a normal pump driven machine. The key difference is using a standard pump machine pressure to the group is delivered at 9bar constant through the extraction process. A lever delivers a diminishing level of pressure, meaning the last few seconds of the extraction the coffee coming out to make a standard 30ml shot is but a trickle.
Other key differences are that there are no solenoids built into the back (or side) of the group to release pressure after the shot...or to act as a release if the barista has packed and tamped way to tightly. After the shot has finished extracting there is a little residue pressure left in the portafilter, meaning when the portafilter is released there is a little “Plopping” noise made. The Italians showed drilled me not under any circumstances to try and release the portafilter during a shot, even if you are looking at a terrible 1 minute extraction. The result is serious burns, scalding and possible damage to the machine and of course Ego's! Better to go to another group, leave the offending attempted shot to petter out on its own accord.
There are some very nice optional extras that a lever machine can offer. Obviously the gas option (or electric and gas). Gas only means no electricity what so ever is needed to use the machine. Gas heats the boiler, producing steam and its own pressure to drive the groups and to produce coffee. A foot pump (like the ones found in Marina Supply shops) can drive water up from an auxiliary tank to the boiler of the machine. Of course electricity is essential to power a commercial grinder, but there are solutions to this minor issue..
Having now had some experience using the lever (albeit still limited hours) I can say that for sure there is no reason at all why a lever machine can not be used in a busy Cafe environment. I remember debate somewhere on BX about whether a lever would hold up against a procon pump machine in such an environment. I would say having seen the machine in action in Italy (where the record was 1 cafe using in total 10 lever groups on 3 machines simultaneously) yes, with well trained barista no problem. In fact the quality of shots and the actual process I think means the end result can be even better than that found on most commercial pump machines. A 23-25 second extraction on a lever may take 5 seconds longer due to pulling the lever down for preinfusion... but many modern espresso machines also have preinfusion system infusion as well.
The capacity of the pistons on a lever are perhaps the only real limiting factor. The piston size generally means that, if used properly, its pretty difficult to pull more than the volume of a double. They were originally designed for single and double shots, so in some countries (eg Australia and New Zealand) where “long Blacks” require more than a double shot delivery, the cafes would have to settle for Americano instead. Some commercial Levers (Pavoni, Faema and Conti) do allow for preinfusion and then a "second pull" which would produce long, long shots. However the Astoria along with most other levers on the market has the piston shafts decoupled from the boiler system, so this is sadly not possible.