My Romance with Lever Espresso machines.


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.

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Comment by santiago abud on December 24, 2015 at 5:02am

Hi Alun, I am looking for a lever machine that could run only on Gas, will you recomend me some model? Thanks

Comment by Carlo Grenci on November 5, 2009 at 11:03pm
Hi Alun,

I see that You are very active on this subject !
Concerning FREDDO , just thinking of what southern italian baristas are seeking all the time i.e. a thick, intense drink You should exclude the possibility to ad ICE to espresso to obtain the CAFFE' FREDDO.
No, it is just an accumulation of "lost" shots , of shots made during the early morning heathing phase of the machine , of some wrong shots..... here nobody throws away anything , and this is even more true in the case of our magic nectar ! Once the coffee (espresso) has cooled down it is poured into a big glass bottle picked from the freezer, sugar is added (if desired; we normally do but it should be dosed carefully) and the mix is shaken as seen in my video. The shaking must be repeated during the whole day in order to avoid th solidification of the liquid in one block.
Shaking produces, on the contrary, a gas emulsion that turns the whole thing into a frozen-like crema.
We just call this delight: CAFFE FREDDO.
In Summer it works like "a kick in your ass" for the whole working day; it's the common working man's legal dope , with a great deal of pleasure involved.
The dose is much bigger than a single espresso: it's at lest two or three shots in terms of volume.(look at the glass !)
Worth trying, then pls. send me a video of your caffè freddo.
I had never thought of "cyber trans planting" a caffè freddo in another Continent !

Ciao
Comment by Alun Evans on November 5, 2009 at 6:11pm
Thought I would post some of Carlo's links to Lever machines here. He too is obvioulsy a big fan. Take note of the volume that goes through the 4 groupd lever in Bar De.Ga in Naples:

1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir68iy3IuQI
2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lugehc2r-o
3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXJc2bzVX3I

Cheers Carlo, thanks for this. I might try and post some more of our Indonesian crew using the Rapallo 3 group lever in store, Jakarta.
Comment by Alun Evans on March 24, 2009 at 6:45pm
The "second pull" should not be necessary in a commercial machine. The option for longer shots can be as simple as over flooding the chamber of the lever- ie holding the lever down until the first drips of espresso are beginning to emerge before releasing the lever. Actually for many machines (CMA stable for example) a second pull is not an option as the lever chamber is fitted with a safety which means you can do le to interfer with the shot once it has begun . However for some machines the "Fellini Move" can be used for longer shots. This involves a double pull on the lever and is detailed in this series of shots. http://www.home-barista.com/levers/fellini-move-in-pictures-t1213.html
Comment by Pedal Press on March 24, 2009 at 11:06am
Is it possible that some lever machine pistons are set up to require a second pull to produce a double? Ours never seems to yield more than 30-40ml. It's a cafethena, which I understand to be a rebranded rio / astoria style machine. Parts-wise, that's what fits.
Comment by Alun Evans on February 3, 2009 at 4:16pm
Too right Carlo. It was only my second Trieste Fair and already I found I knew a lot of faces from last time around. I ws opposite to you...I started on the bottom floors and worked up. I even meet a uy from Wellington (my ome town in NZ) who sells the ECM Rocket machines... small world indeed
Comment by Carlo Grenci on January 24, 2009 at 4:36am
This year I was there again, but I spent most of my time in the competition hall (upstairs at the end of the first hall) where I ran a workshop about the selection of green coffee and prepared a competition for the teams taking part in the ETCC (European Team Coffee Challenge). Then I was involved as judge in these competitions and then every three steps I made met someone I knew (the older you get the more people you know...) ......well, Triestespresso is not a big fair at all, but I couldn't see it all in three days !
Comment by Alun Evans on January 23, 2009 at 10:40pm
BTW YES!!! It is very possible we meet in Trieste in 2006. I was there pretty much doing it all on the Indo Stand. That year we were on the top floor. This year we were opposite Sandalj on the ground floor.
Comment by Carlo Grenci on January 23, 2009 at 10:19pm
Hi Alun,
you came to southern Italy and didn't even give ma a call!
I am glad to see that you are a lever machine user and fan.... a visit to Napoli would have surely added something to your knowledge as barista; here no serious barista would handle anything else than a lever machine for his espresso. My favourite machines are Mr. Bosco's: fully artesanal made by hand one by one. Shallow portafilter and soft springs (opposite to San Marco's narrower and deeper portafilter and strong spring, good for Robusta based blends and to extract coffee even from a piece of wood!)
It's commonly believed to be a slow-operation device; even a former WBC thinks like that; a short visit to a busy neaplitan bar would make him change his mind in 30 seconds!
I think I have met you personally in Trieste at a fair in 2006; is it possible ?
I am very fond of the good Javanese WIB Robustas, but it has become very difficult to find really good ones here in Italy; now I am going to try some PTP XII Keliseligiri Estate WIB Robusta and some Arabica Jampit Estate; we'll clear customs this week e. It is an UTZ Certified coffee; that is a mandatory certification I am looking for.
I would be glad to buy your choice of indonesian coffees if You feel like spending some money in sample shipments... I am not looking for something just bringing a name on a bag, you know what I mean....

Next time You come to Italy please don't be so lazy: sometimes I may sound not too inviting but that's just because I am too busy in this chaotic town and life!
Ring me up when You come , OK ?

Ciao
Carlo
Comment by Chris K on January 12, 2009 at 2:25am
Hey Alun,
Y'ou finally did it!
Looks great.
Makes great espresso.. and i wouldnt swap mine for anything.

Though they can be abit of work.
But if you love your work its not a problem. ;)

But there is nothing that exemplifies espresso more than a well made lever shot!

Join the c lub! :)

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