Lever Espresso Machines Smackdown

Behind the scenes of the site's projects and equipment reviews.
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#1: Post by HB »

Some things in life you just have to experience to understand. So it is with lever espresso machines, known for the compelling simplicity of their design and the unique flavor profile of the beverage they produce. The espresso making process of lever machines favors slow, thoughtful movements, an almost Zen-like moment of calm, focused creation.

The espresso aficionados that frequent the site's Lever Espresso Machines forum are among the most active members, and yet the objects of their interest have been woefully under-represented among the site's reviews (only one formal and one informal review published to-date!). Dubbed the Lever Espresso Machines Smackdown, this effort aims to recognize the unique and noteworthy benefits these traditional machines bring to the barista's repertoire.

Sponsored by 1st-line Equipment, this review will focus on their recent introduction to the US market, the Ponte Vecchio Lusso. This temperature-stable lever espresso machine will be compared and contrasted against better known models like the Olympia Cremina, La Pavoni Europiccola and Elektra Microcasa a Leva:

Image Image Image Image

These four lever machines will travel among reviewers in the same fashion as the Titan Grinder Project. In addition to the official entries of the Smackdown, reviewers plan to compare these levers with their own gear, such as the Olympia Cremina and Gaggia Achille.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#2: Post by HB (original poster) »

This week is the official opening of the Lever Espresso Machines Smackdown, but I've been informally preparing by exclusively using my Elektra Microcasa a Leva the last few weeks. Although I've owned it for years, it sees irregular use as a weekend and travel kit (More signs of ECD is the story of one such trip). After this extended go-around, I could end up a lever convert, it's been pulling more nuanced, flavorful shots than the usual E61 suspects. Intelligentsia sent some Black Cat, which packs quite a punch, but Elektra manages it quite nicely. Never would I have thought of descriptors like "fruity" could be applied to that blend, but it was this morning's welcome surprise.

With some practice on the Microcasa under my belt, attention turned to the first arrival of the Lever Smackdown, the one group Ponte Vecchio Lusso. It's been written about extensively in the forums, perhaps most notably introduced by Tim's Initial impressions thread. Subsequently there were few surprises, though I intentionally didn't review past comments to help preserve my experience of the discovery phase.

OK, back to Mr. Lusso. Unlike the others in the lineup, the Lusso's grouphead is actively heated by a thermosyphon. And it certainly works fast! The grouphead was hot to the touch in less than 10 minutes. The Microcasa's group is in direct contact and it wouldn't be that toasty for another few minutes. The first shot was nearly a choke, the second was close, and the third was pour speed wise similar to the Microcasa.

(I'll try to post some lever tips as I remember them, e.g., don't push the lever down too fast, it breaks the puck/basket seal. Some guys go as far as to keep the portafilter shy of locked in tight as they raise the lever, then tighten down before releasing; I haven't bothered.)

The first two espressos weren't pleasant, the third was in the ballpark (well, more like the parking lot of the ballpark) of this morning's Microcasa. The second pulls from this machine were disastrous; I'm usually a one pull guy on the Microcasa, but it can handle two without a waterfall. The Lusso's flooded fast on the second pull, indicating the puck was compromised after the temporary pressure release.

Greg Scace, creator of the famous thermofilter, plans to machine one specifically for the Lusso. Once it's done, we will create plots of the Lusso's pressure profile with it. I expect it to look like this:

From Olympia Cremina 2002: The evolution of design

Though I'm not sure about the height of the peaks. The piston is much smaller than the Microcasa, but the spring seems to pack about the same punch. It should put out more brew pressure. I'm not willing to pop THAT spring out of the group, the end isn't a bolt-in like the Microcasa! I'll have to ask Jim if he minds me tapping a hole in the side of the Microcasa's group to plot the brew pressure. I've always wanted to do that...

All the espressos tasted too hot. The pressurestat is set at 1.5 bar; it will have to come down a few pegs next chance I get.

First impressions:

A no nonsense lever machine. Surprising to have a steam and water tap in such a small package. The fittings choices are respectable, the refill cap has a safety hole for idiots who forget to depressurize, the driptray cover has a flipped up edge that hooks behind the backsplash. Good simple design, but it lacks the polished refinement of the Elektra. The valves have a strong rubber compression fitting feel to them. I would expect them to go drip drip over time.

A big boiler means no refilling and the steaming looks strong; Elektra's steam seems drier and the dispersion pattern more natural, but that may reflect my familiarity. The Lusso is compact and looks tough enough that I would not hesitate to toss it in the back seat with nary a towel around it to protect it from scratches. The Microcasa, in sharp contrast, never goes anywhere without its hardcase cocoon. The Microcasa chrome/brass model will scratch if you even look at it hard.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#3: Post by HB (original poster) »

As reported yesterday, the extractions dialed in nicely, but the taste clearly said "too hot!" So I removed the top plastic cover under the cup warmer, hoping the pressurestat would be accessible. No dice, the whole body has to come off since the pressurestat is oriented vertically, facing the exterior wall with nearly zero clearance. Looking around the interior, I see the casing is held on by two bolts from the bottom. I removed it when the machine was cool and unplugged, for safety's sake.

Once the cover was off and the machine back to operating temperature, I adjusted the pressurestat down to 1.1 bar (based on Tim's recommendations in initial impressions). He says the factory setting is 1.5 bar and that's what mine was regulated to. I have to wonder, what kind of coffee are they pulling at the Ponte Vecchio factory? Heat tolerant Robusta?

The pulls were much better at the lower temperatures. I'm using the double basket and a spice jar tamper (more on that later!), 11 grams, 4 seconds preinfusion with Fellini Move. The resultant brew ratio is ristretto range 100% with one pull or double range 60% with two. Even though the second pull shows no early signs of blonding, the body suffers. I pull the cup away at the first sign of blonding/ translucence.

On other news...

The next reviewers to join the Lever Smackdown are very experienced home baristas, but veritable newbies when it comes to lever espresso machines. John drew the La Pavoni Europiccola, while Greg has the two-group Ponte Vecchio Lusso. I've joked privately that Greg's introduction to the Bench will feel like a hazing. I mean really, here's the guy who worships at the Alter of the Flat Brew Temperature doing time with a series of lever machines! Fortunately he's starting with the Lusso, which reputedly has a flat(ter) profile. The traveling Microcasa hasn't left the building, but rest assured, it will get its workout in due course.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#4: Post by HB (original poster) »

From what I've read, some lever aficionados prefer one pull, some prefer two, and others prefer the hybrid 1-1/2 pulls, or Fellini Move. For those new to lever-dom, allow me to elaborate on the reasons behind these choices.

Earlier I posted Steve's mountain/valley pressure profile of his Olympia Cremina, the valley being created when he returned the lever to its upper position to refill the pump's chamber. While the piston is in the upper position, water is pushed by steam pressure from the boiler to the grouphead through the lower channel in the bridge shown below (arrows):

Hydraulics diagram of Olympia Cremina

Ideally, levers would require only one stroke to avoid the risk of fracturing the puck on the upstroke, but these small manual pumps can only generate so much pressure for a given volume of water. Thus a true double espresso means more than one pull for most home lever machines, and the risk that the puck may get thrashed during depressurization/repressurization. The effect is worse if the puck has lots of headspace since it potentially loses adhesion as it is "vacuumed" during the upstroke (the Cremina has a nifty gasket solution to this dilemma as Steve explains here).

Personally I'm a one pull kind of guy for most levers, or a Fellini Move advocate (please, no snide remarks from the peanut gallery). Specifically for the Lusso:
  • Lift the lever to fill,
  • Wait 3-4 seconds for preinfusion,
  • Let the lever descend a little while resisting the spring pressure,
  • Gently return back to the top for a refill and then let the spring take over.
That gets the puck nearly fully saturated with a full chamber. You don't want preinfusion to go to the point of beading on the bottom of the basket since it will do more damage as you pull back up. With this trick you can get a full stroke with the puck already wet, producing very close to a true double, if that sort of thing matters to you...

Those with lots of experience with pump-driven espresso machines may judge the lever's espresso volumes "inadequate." My take on the issue is simple: Get over it. But John offered a much better response in the thread Best advice for pulling doubles:
Alchemist wrote:Mostly, IMO, you are looking to get something out of a lever that simply isn't meant to be. Small(er) basket levers are not 58 mm pump machines and expecting the same thing from them is heading down a path to disappointment. Some people go for multiple pulls but I have never found this to have much success. The puck cracks, channeling occurs and quality decreases.

The 3 best things I can offer are this:

1) Quantity is not quality. 1.25 oz of great espresso is better than 2.5 oz mediocre espresso.
2) Do a couple of very small micro pulls (5 lbs pressure, 20% down) as part of your preinfussion. That will maximize volume.
3) Prep 2 double baskets and pull into one cup in succession.

Mostly, don't try in vain to match another machines performance or your idea of what you think it should be able to pull. Pull the best shot it is capable of pulling and enjoy it.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#5: Post by HB (original poster) »

Today is the last of the Klatch Roasting WBC Championship Blend with the Lusso. Actually it was roasted in late August and stored in the freezer, yet it demonstrates resiliency. Today's espressos are among the best I've had in a couple months, though I temper my comment with the caveat that a sinus infection / allergy / summer cold put me out of commission for all of September and part of October.

Not sure if this applies to the two group Ponte Vecchio, but the first shot of a session runs hot. My best results are with the Fellini Move (effectively 1-1/2 pulls), 2-3 seconds of gentle preinfusion, back up gently to refill, gentle release. The brewing ratio is 80-100% for one pull espressos (11 grams in, 11 to 14 grams out). I could do a second pull without devastatingly bad results. The second pull extraction tastes like coffee from a moka pot, if not left to the very end when blonding sets in. While I don't find the taste of the espresso's second pull objectionable, it's "boring" and would only dilute the espresso qualities, especially the body.

Since this is a Smackdown, allow me to talk a bit of smack about the competition...

The Lusso's espressos strike me as somewhere between the Olympia Cremina and Elektra Microcasa a Leva. They have good flavor, but less clarity and separation than I would expect from the Microcasa. The body is less than the Cremina, but more than the Microcasa, at least for the ristrettos. My guess is that the spring pressure might be higher, or maybe the deeper basket has something to do with it. That said, the review is early, I'm backlogged with work, so these early observations should be taken with a grain of salt.

Temperature wise, it's MUCH easier to manage than your typical lever. I'm very interested in seeing what the thermofilter reveals; by taste alone, I think the brew temperature is wandering a 2-3 degree range, worse for the first shot of the day where it has signs of a spiked "U" temperature profile.

Overall my first impression?

It's a workhorse lever espresso machine that's easy to use. A competent barista would have no difficulty pulling an acceptable espresso. If using a temperature tolerant blend, the Lusso would shine over some HX operators because it doesn't need a flush to be in the ballpark, whereas HX espresso machines without thermosyphon restrictors can go all over the map if handled improperly. In other words, the "pulling shots by the numbers" for the Lusso is blissfully simple. On the unflattering side, the espressos cannot compete on tactile balance, where the Lusso's distant E61 cousins shine. It appears to be a classic lever versus pump machine tradeoff, though at this point I maintain the Elektra Microcasa a Leva holds the edge on Jim Schulman and Karl Schneider's favorite measure, clarity, for reasons I cannot explain.

A few other nits:

Did I mention the lack of a proper tamper? Why did they bother with a POS plastic tamper with one end that can't enter the basket, the other with +6mm of slack? And while I appreciate the low water safety cutoff, I would trade it for a vacuum breaker. Or even a cheap "low water" indicator and a vacuum breaker. The low water safety cutoff adds expense and wire clutter to the machine for a condition that isn't that common, while an inexpensive vacuum breaker would eliminate the nuisance of bleeding off false pressure every day.

Tim mentioned it in his first impressions and I agree - the driptray is ineffective, not only in volume, but the holes are spaced so far apart that water collects there rather than reaching the collection tray below. Fortunately there's very little need for a driptray (I've only emptied it once, and there was not much in it), since I use a 12 ounce pitcher for cleanup. As fate would have it, the grouphead fits nicely in the pitcher with just a little margin, so I can blast crud off the screen by enclosing the bottom of the grouphead with the pitcher and pulling the lever down. It splashes enough in the pitcher to wash down the screen AND the gasket. The Lusso has the fastest cleanup, bar none.
Dan Kehn

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#6: Post by HB (original poster) »

Week one is over and still no sign of the other reviewers. Eventually they will join the fray, in the meantime my monologue continues. Tonight's topic: What one thing is most impressive about the Ponte Vecchio Lusso?

Honestly, it isn't the espresso that strikes me as remarkable, it's the remarkable predictability of its temperature profile. The Gaggia Achille is the only other lever I've used that can make claims of temperature predictability. The more lever experience I get, the more I'm convinced there's two classes of lever designs: Those that emulate the tactile and flavor profile of pump espresso machines, and those that have a distinct profile, characterized by lower body, higher clarity, and more layered, complex flavors. My bet is on the pressure profile as the key influencer, followed by "high hump" brew temperature profiles. Greg's custom thermofilter will be a great opportunity to measure these accurately.

Of the levers I've used, the Achille is the closest to a pump espresso machine. In terms of body and taste, they're nigh indistinguishable. The Cremina at times falls into the same category, though frequently it does expose its lever nature. I've not used the Pavoni much, but my guess is a good operator would put it in the same group; I'll have to re-read Chris' La Pavoni in the hands of pros thread. The Elektra Microcasa is the clarity king, with the Lusso sort of a hybrid between the pump emulators and unique profiles. My guess is you'll be pleased with the Lusso if you're into single origins and want the potential to serve a crowd. Those who want big booming chocolates and body will be more impressed with the manual levers.
Dan Kehn

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#7: Post by RapidCoffee »

HB wrote:Week one is over and still no sign of the other reviewers.
Can't speak for the other reviewers, but in my case (complete lever newbie) it's the fear of appearing clueless in public. (Yeah yeah, so what else is new? :) )

Notes from October 22

The La Pavoni Europiccola arrived today. I'm not immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of this machine.

Chrome peacock, indeed! The black plastic base looks, well, plasticky. The drip tray is very small and lightweight, and tends to slip around on the base.

Sheesh, you'd think for $600 they could include some useful accessories. The black POS tamper is the typical insult, and the black plastic coffee measure? Of course, this comment applies to all machines...

Speaking of peacocks, a peanut gallery of peacock wannabees gathered in my yard while I was unpacking and taking pix. They didn't stay for coffee.

<drum roll> Time to pull my first ever lever shot!

First pull was Super Tuscan, slightly bitter but surprisingly acceptable. Second pull was homeroasted Paradise Espresso Classico, much tastier. I've got a lot of climbing left to do on the lever learning curve, but both pours (doubles) were quite drinkable.

Milk frothing was straightforward. The steam wand is awkwardly placed (for me), and has a very limited range of articulation. In particular, the steepest angle is over 45 degrees from vertical. Frothing is quick, but the steam is wet, and producing microfoam is challenging.

This resulted in a slightly frothy cappuccino, in which the crema had all but subsided.

Were the lever shots as good as my standard Vetrano pours? Nope, not even in the same universe. I hope I don't turn out to be the lever grinch of the crew...

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#8: Post by RapidCoffee »

Notes from October 23
A mixed bag of Pavoni pulls today, with a sink shot in the morning but a fairly decent double this evening:

The manual recommends a double pull, but I quit doing that pretty quickly. Here's my routine:
1) Short hot water flush.
2) Load and lock the PF.
3) Pull the lever up to the top position for about 10 seconds of preinfusion.
4) Pull down slowly on the lever until the first dribbles appear.
5) Gently return the lever to the top position to refill the grouphead with water.
6) Pull smoothly down to the bottom position with 30-40# (my guess) of pressure.
7) Remove cup when dribbles start to blond.
Sound reasonable?

You can't tell from the pix, but the Pavoni pulls are still not up to Vetrano standards. My Vetrano shots have much more body, mouthfeel, flavor, crema...

More Pavoni gripes:
1) Steam wand angle and position are awkward. Steam is wet and good microfoam is difficult to achieve.
2) Portafilter placement is odd: inserts at 6PM, rotates clockwise to lock in at ~8PM.
3) Lack of spring clip in portafilter makes it a PITA to dump grinds from filter basket.
4) Small boiler requires refill every 2-3 shots.
5) Two-handed lever operation is required (unit is light).
6) Damn thing bit me this morning! It's very easy to burn yourself, especially with the odd frothing configuration.

The Pavoni portafilter is fairly heavy but clipless, so the basket falls out when you go to dump the spent grinds. I don't know why they bothered to put a double spout on this itsy bitsy thing.

51mm Pavoni portafilter in front, 58mm Vetrano portafilter in rear.

It's easier to refill the Pavoni with a funnel in the boiler:

My cat has learned to jump up on the counter when she hears me frothing milk. Good to know I'm still trainable. :roll:

At least Bella is enjoying the Pavoni testing...

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#9: Post by RapidCoffee »

Notes from October 30
My initial impressions of the Pavoni are still holding. I've experimented with different grinds, doses, and pull pressures. I tried a single this morning as well as a double. It's easy enough to produce an acceptable cup, but I haven't pulled anything close to spectacular yet (nothing like Dan's lovely Elektra pour). My best Pavoni pulls rival a good strong cup of coffee or Aeropress cup, but they still don't compare to Vetrano shots.

typical Vetrano pour - Pavoni shots look anemic by comparison

On the positive side, I haven't observed any of the classic symptoms of overheating (burnt, bitter tastes). This is most likely due to the small Pavoni boiler. I can only pull three doubles without refilling, then the water level drops to the bottom of the sight glass. Either this is too little to cause overheating, or there are significant improvements to the post-millenium Pavonis in this regard.

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#10: Post by RapidCoffee »

Notes from November 3: Levers are from Mars, pumps are from Venus
The Pavoni has a steep learning curve, at least if you're working out the various parameters by yourself. It's not hard to get decent pours, but tricky to get really good ones. I've dumped more shots down the sink in the past week than, oh, maybe going back to my Hall of Shame days. :oops:

But I'm happy to report that I'm finally getting good shots from the Pavoni, most likely due to two factors: 1) a decent tamper (thanks, Jeff!) and 2) a bit of downdosing. I get far better results using 12g than 13-15g in the double basket. There's conflicting advice from Chris Tacy in this regard. From the La Pavoni Pro thread:
You should grind about 12grams of coffee for the double basket.
I've actually found that a small amount of overdosing helps a lot...
It's a real stretch to call 12g overdosing (or even updosing).

I believe I'm doing the Fellini move: pull up on the lever, hold it for a few seconds to preinfuse, pull down gently until the first drops appear, pull back up to fill the group, and then execute a full downward stroke.

An espresso-savvy friend came over today and pronounced the Pavoni pours excellent, some of the best espresso he'd had in a while. Granted, there's not much competition out here in the wilderness, but it was good to hear.

Am I ready to sell the Vetrano? Not on your life.

I just can't get this kind of pour from the Pavoni - not yet, at any rate.

But at least my Pavoni pulls are in the same universe as my Vetrano shots, maybe even the same solar system. 8)