Olympia Cremina Review

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#1: Post by HB »

Back in 2005, HB reviewed the redesigned Olympia Cremina of the time, comparing it to a restored model 20 years older. Over the last decade, Olympia Express has continued to make incremental improvements to the construction of this timeless lever espresso machine. This update looks at the latest rendition of one of the most popular (and probably the most expensive!) lever espresso machine for the home consumer.

Evaluation model courtesy of Cerini Coffee & Gifts
Dan Kehn

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#2: Post by HB (original poster) »

Before getting into the review itself, I would like to briefly summarize the story behind the rise to fame of the Olympia Cremina on this site.

Today the Olympia Cremina has so many fans, it almost approaches cult-like devotion. I don't know for certain the origin of its fame in the US, but at least on this site, it's unquestionably Steve's Restoration of an Olympia Cremina from 2005. The story of the restoration began with an eBay purchase and ends with a reveal months later. Along the way, Steve shared his progress in photos and occasional mishaps. It's really a great read.

Steve's successful restoration and the availability of other Olympia Creminas in various states of operation on eBay led to similar restoration threads (e.g., Another restoration of an Olympia Cremina and '82 Olympia Cremina Restoration). Happy owners praised the solid design, ease of use, and simple elegance of the Cremina. Steve started the Lever Machines World Domination Plot (LMWDP) Rollcall to document lever devotees. Others took interest in the diminutive lever from Switzerland and the prices in the aftermarket led to a long-running thread expressing shock at the climbing prices for barely functional units in eBay Olympia Cremina record?

The Lever Espresso Machines forum is among the oldest and most popular on the site. Over the years, other lever espresso machines have garnered lots of forum admirers (notably the La Pavoni Europiccola and Elektra Microcasa a Leva), but 10 years later, the Olympia Cremina is still the local hero of the LMWDP.

Restoration to Revolution (see Custom Wood for your Espresso Machine for more gorgeous examples of the handles above)
Dan Kehn

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#3: Post by HB (original poster) »

I have asked Christian Sagehorn of Olympia Express SA if he could provide a capsule summary of the company's history. In the meantime, Gary (drgary) reminded me about Francesco Ceccarelli pages describing the early version 1.0 model that closely resembles the La Pavoni Europiccola:


Francesco refers to the rectangular Cremina most recognize as "version 2.0". Prior to the Cremina version 2.0 in 1967, Olympia Express had already been in existence, creating commercial machines. Indeed the Olympia Express story is hard to uncover due to ownership changes (and possibly a fire at the factory destroying early documentation?). If Christian is able to add details to the Olympia Express history, I'll update this post accordingly.

In the meantime, you can peruse their family album of espresso machines since 1928, including this quote:
Thomas Schätti, owner Olympia Express AG wrote:We don't want to build a machine to last three or four years but one that lasts three or four generations.
Dan Kehn

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#4: Post by HB (original poster) »

Finally! I had some free time over the holidays to enjoy some espresso with an old friend:

Olympia Express Moca Espresso Grinder and Cremina

The grinder is a new espresso-only version of the Olympia espresso Moca grinder. Needless to say, it's well proportioned to the Cremina and the pair look really sharp side-by-side. Unlike the many large semi-commercial espresso machines I've tested, the diminutive Cremina/Moca pair look perfectly natural in a kitchen environment. My wife mentioned she prefers the dark gray model, but I've warmed up to the bright "look at me!" red of the model above.

Over the coming weeks, I'll add more operational detail to this review, e.g., how to control brew temperature, manage brew pressure, and diagnose common problems. But keep in mind that lever espresso machine techniques vary widely from barista-to-barista. To get an idea of how enthusiastically Olympia Cremina fans embrace the subject, peruse the Lever Espresso Machines forum where you'll find discussions like Olympia Cremina Temperature Study Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (author change), and Part 4. :shock:

For my part, I'll be advocating the K.I.S.S. principle. For example, I manage brew temperature using the "cold portafilter" technique described in the Newbie Introduction to Espresso - Lever Espresso Machines video. With a little practice, it's easy to select temperatures in three ranges: cool/medium/hot. As a good starting point, I'll start with medium brew temperature as described in the video and then shift the temperature up/down by allowing more/less recovery time.

To refresh my technique with a manual lever, I intentionally choose a temperature-tolerant espresso blend for the first week with the Cremina. After several days with Counter Culture Coffee's Big Trouble (formally known as Toscano), I switched to a more challenging single orgin:

Ruvumbu, RWANDA from Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea

For those who aren't familiar with Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, they package their coffees dedicated to espresso in black bags and the rest of their coffees in "traffic cone orange" bags. They describe their Rwandan Ruvumbu coffee as follows:
Intelligentsia Coffee wrote:Focusing on ripe cherry selection, Justin Musabyimana's efforts have resulted in another exceptionally clean and flavorful harvest. Our third annual coffee from Ruvumbu tastes like apricot jam and butterscotch with the bright acidity of cranberries.
If you like fruity coffees, but flinch at the thought of lemon pucker acidity, lever espresso machines like the Cremina offer an interesting option. Because the brew water is drawn from the steam boiler (so-called "dipper" design), the temperature profile spikes dramatically above the target brew temperature at first, then tapers off as the grouphead draws off excess heat. I believe this initial temperature spike has the positive effect of tempering acidity without flattening the fruitiness. For this particular coffee, the Cremina delivers sweet fruits and a crisp clean finish of cranberries as promised, but most importantly, without the pucker I would have expected from a pump-driven espresso machine.

Before wrapping this review, I would like to hold a group taste test with a similarly fruity coffee and an ultra-flat brew temperature profile like the espresso machines from La Marzocco. Will the Cremina be able to reproduce this nicely-fruity-without-pucker espresso and how will it compare to a pump-driven espresso machine with flat brew temperature profile? We'll see. Admittedly because of the hands-on nature of a lever espresso machine, the results may not be readily reproducible, but it will be a fun comparison.
Dan Kehn

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#5: Post by HB (original poster) »

It's certainly worth reading in its entirely, but to anchor the backstory of this review, I've excerpted portions of the well-documented History of Olympia Express by Gary Seeman:


This history is based on information provided by the current owner of the company, Thomas Schatti. It is supplemented by online searches and a review of prior Home-Barista posts.

Early History

Olimpia Express (Olympia by 1967) was founded in 1928 by Luigi Bresaolo, in Chiasso, Switzerland. Apparently he was dissatisfied with the coffee machines in his wife's café. He started his own company and for many years produced commercial machines and cafetieres (moka makers) for home use. He was a perfectionist and would modify a machine until he could improve it no further. The current Olympia Express site has a page with photos of these historic machines. Those include urn-like steam espresso machines that predated the 1938 invention of the café crema brew method, where a piston forces water below the boiling point through the coffee, greatly improving extraction flavor and mouthfeel.

Photo of Product Display courtesy of Olympia Express ©

In its middle years the company produced commercial levers and pump-driven machines that were all beautifully crafted. In 1968, Luigi Bresaolo, Jr. took over management, and at some point the company moved to Morbio, Switzerland. Later years were marked by several ownership changes. In 2010 Schatti, AG acquired the company, with Thomas Schatti now serving as chief executive. In 2011 the company moved its manufacturing to Glarus, Switzerland.

Introducing the Cremina as We Know it Today

The first generation Cremina was apparently sourced from La Pavoni and paralleled the development of the first generation La Pavoni Europiccola, but with enhancements by Olympia Express. Here's an example:

The first Cremina had no sightglass. Photo of Cremina Version 1.1 courtesy of Francesco Ceccarelli.

By 1967 Olympia Express brought the manufacture of the Cremina in-house. The second generation Cremina was a total redesign to the machine that we know today. An outer case now enclosed the heated boiler to reduce burn hazard. It had a much larger, removable, metal drip tray and grate, a resettable thermal safety switch and a gasketed steam valve. The steam wand was moved to the left, and the heating system was now controlled by a pressure switch that was activated whenever the machine was powered on.

Photo of 1967 Cremina courtesy of Olympia Express ©

Olympia Express continued to improve design and build quality with minor exceptions (i.e., the 1991 plastic drip tray) that were almost always later reversed. These vintage Creminas and other Olympia Express machines were hand-crafted classics that are still valued by coffee hobbyists and collectors today. The design sophistication and build quality of the current version is unsurpassed, earning a reputation as the Rolex™ of home espresso machines.
Dan Kehn

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#6: Post by HB (original poster) »

Light roasted coffees are popular with most of the espresso aficionados on this site. That's true of the majority of coffees I drink, but I do enjoy an occasional dark(er) roasted coffee. For this review, I started with the crowd pleasing and barista-friendly Big Trouble by Counter Culture Coffee, then moved to a more challenging single origin espresso, Rwandan Ruvumbu, from Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea. The last few days I've been pulling a dark(er) roast from Counter Culture Coffee, Forty-Six (formally known as La Forza). It's not as dark as the signature blends from Starbucks, but it definitely has a distinct smoky finish. As a straight shot, it's enjoyable.

Forty-Six from Counter Culture Coffee

That said, it really shines in medium-to-large milk drinks that smooth out the rougher edges, delivering an enjoyable Nutella-like quality.

For darker coffees, I recommend reducing the brew temperature and targeting a brew ratio of a normale espresso (ristretto ratios for dark roasts may be sweeter, but they're also most acrid). While you may read (incorrectly) that letting the pull run well to the point of blonding will lead to increased bitterness, I find that for dark roasts, the latter third of the shot acts as a buffer and improves the overall balance.

For the sessions with the Cremina and Forty-Six, I kept the dose the same, but moved the grind setting a half-notch coarser and reduced the "rebound time" after locking in an unheated portafilter. While I was at it, I also created the obligatory bottomless portafilter pour video below:
Once the doubles were nicely dialed in, I took the opportunity to steam milk for a cappuccino. I've been using a lot of fast commercial and semi-commercial espresso machines lately (Speedster, La Marzocco GS/3, Strada), so the transition to the much slower pace and subdued steam velocity of the Cremina was an adjustment. Although steaming with a full-on commercial espresso machine doesn't leave you much room for error, there's little need to "surf" the tip across the surface of the milk to inject air; for the most part, the force of the steam suffices and rolling the milk is a matter of not overflowing the pitcher.

With the Cremina, the steam escapes in 4 tiny holes, so I need to hold the tip precisely at the milk's surface, otherwise I risk blowing bubbles. I don't recall having any difficulty with steaming near-perfect microfoam with the Elektra Microcasa a Leva. Before the review wraps, I planned on comparing these two popular levers espresso-to-espresso; given my less than perfect microfoam with the Cremina, I'll take a second look at their cappuccinos too.
Dan Kehn

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#7: Post by HB (original poster) »

Despite being the birthplace of espresso, popular espresso brands in Italy are not well represented among the site's membership. Searching on Italian Espresso (title only) reveals past discussions that speak to fans as well as detractors who view mainstream Italian espresso blends as overly dark. While not specifically about darker roasted coffees, Jim's Thoughts on an Italian Espresso Blend is a must-read on the subject of so-called "Italian-style" espresso blends that leverage a mixture of lightly and darker roasted coffees:
another_jim wrote:We all make fun of Italian espresso blends and of the people who use them. Why pay eight to twelve dollars per pound for cheap stale coffee when you can get high quality fresh coffee for roughly the same price? We especially made fun of Ken Davids when he reviewed some of these blends, comparing them to US ones, and declaring the most plebeian of all Italian espresso, Segafredo's bar blend, the winner.

But then it occurred to me that I haven't pulled an Italian blend for years; and the last time I did, I wasn't a very good shot puller, nor did I know much about coffee. So I'm not being fair when I make fun of these coffees. I wonder how many others making fun also do so without having given them a serious tryout after they became experts.

That is why I'm staring at a 1 kilo package of Essse Caffe's Miscela Masini. Miscela Masini is Essse's top blend. It was roasted on July 10th, 2010, about 11 weeks ago, and expires on July 1, 2011. I suppress my snickers and start pulling shots.

The Puzzle How can stale coffee be this good? Miscela Masini isn't quite up to the standard of the best coffees we reviewed in the favorite blends project; but it completely spanks anything you'll pick up in a supermarket, and is better than most of the fresh espresso blends done by specialty roasters in the US. Solving this puzzle can perhaps even help us improve the blends we normally drink, which use high end, fresh coffees.

Back to the Olympia Cremina: As noted in the previous posts above, the past week I've been drinking all dark(er) roasted coffees. Although I prefer more lightly roasted coffees, I definitely see the appeal, especially in milk drinks. Before moving onto the next phase of this review that will focus on technique, today I'll share some thoughts on dark roasted coffees.

Served without milk, Forty-Six is a bit rough. Reflecting on my days living overseas and suggestions in the forums, I added a smidgen of sugar:

Smidgen, dash, or a tad?

Apologies for my lack of precision. Is this a smidgen, dash, or a tad of sugar? I'm not sure and intentionally want to avoid excessive precision since sweetness is subjective; my guess it's a bit less than half a cube. With just a dash of sugar, its presence is not revealed as sweetness, but rather as improved balance and a decidedly softer edge on the finish. However, doubling the amount of sugar above overwhelmed the espresso, pushing into soft drink level of sweetness.

Sugar added before pour and then stirred

Dark(er) roasted coffees like this aim to please those seeking a less complex "comfort food" type of coffee experience. While it's a safe bet that many drinkers will serve coffees like this in an Olympic-sized latte cup, it works well as a double with a bit of sugar.

I added the sugar to the cup prior to the pour and stirred slightly afterwards. Despite the agitation, the very last sip or two was noticeably sweeter than the rest of the drink, but not objectionably so. It's a welcome change of pace (and doesn't remind me of a sickly-sweet soft drink). The Olympia Cremina / Moca grinder pair adapted well to the extreme of a bright single origin coffee to a darker roasted espresso blend with just a few tweaks of technique; I'll elaborate on the specifics in a later installment of this review. In the meantime, bottoms up!

Smooth 'n easy drinking with slightly sweeter finish
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#8: Post by HB (original poster) »

Over the weekend I experimented with darker coffee with a smidgen or dash of sugar. But what about a more precise standard, the familiar sugar cube?

A full lump

Years ago when I worked in France, my colleagues and I would stop by a cafe on the way back to the office. I don't recall anyone forgoing sugar; I was a half-cube guy. It was really necessary since the espresso was dull with a dirty roast finish; the sugar didn't make it a good espresso, but it was drinkable. It was hard to complain too loudly though, since an espresso was only 2 francs (around $0.50 at the time?). There were certainly good cafes in Paris, our office just happen to be far from any of them.

In memory of those afternoon stops with my French colleagues, I tried pulling an espresso extraction over a sugar cube. I didn't have any half cubes, so I figured that by the time I had finished the drink, only half of the sugar would be dissolved, delivering my half cube level of preferred sweetness:

Experimentation with sweetness profiling

While I would not call this impromptu experiment a complete success, the resulting espresso tasted much better than what I remember of the Paris cafes near our office. The sweetness increased with each sip; I can imagine one of my particularly irrepressible colleagues of the time arguing the benefits of a profiled sweetness. We certainly argued about everything else! In retrospect, our cafe stops were just an excuse to talk. Oh, how I miss those days. :)
Dan Kehn

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#9: Post by HB (original poster) »

Most of the current reviews feature a shootout between the evaluation model and a worthy competitor. For example, the ECM Technika IV Profi vs. La Marzocco Linea PB or Speedster vs. La Marzocco GS/3 MP. I would like to hold a similar shootout with the Olympia Cremina, though I believe that barista technique will have significant influence on the final result compared to previous comparisons between two pump-driven double boiler espresso machines. Then again, even if the results are less likely to be readily reproducible, impromptu group taste tests probably reflect actual use better than a carefully crafted "laboratory-like" environment. :?

To preview what such a comparison might yield, this morning I pulled shots of Intelligentsia Black Cat Classic on the La Marzocco Strada and Olympia Cremina:

Espresso from Strada on left, espresso from Cremina on right

In terms of flavor profile, they were surprisingly close. However, the body of the espressos from the La Marzocco Strada were significantly heavier than the Olympia Cremina. That's not surprising, since the brew ratio of the former was higher (18/40 = 45% versus 12/30 = 40%). Because the Cremina pressure is applied manually, the extraction naturally runs longer since I can ease off the pressure towards the end. I employed a similar "poor man's pressure profiling" with the Strada:
HB wrote:I demonstrated "poor man's pressure profiling" on the Strada MP. That's where you carefully position the paddle on the crossover point between the valve opening/closing (sort of like a big needle valve). It's imprecise, but with practice, it's not hard to reproduce a slow ramp to 9 bar followed by a trailing off to 6 bar, similar to a lever espresso machine.

From Friday mornings at Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, NC
However, the above isn't quite as effective as the true hands-on approach. Therein lies a shootout dilemma: Should one compare two models playing to their individual strengths or try to create a similar "ideal" espresso on each? What if the two models' strengths lie at the extremes (e.g., rich heavy espressos versus lighter layered espressos)?
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#10: Post by HB (original poster) »

When it comes to fruity single origin espressos, I believe that lever espresso machines like the Cremina are the home barista's tool of choice. Because they draw water directly from the steam boiler, the initial brew temperature spikes before the grouphead's thermal mass acts as a damper, drawing the temperature down throughout the extraction. It's conjecture on my part, but I think the temperature spike followed by a declining profile tempers the coffee's acidity.

To revisit that claim, today's test featured Intelligentsia Coffee's Black Cat Project - Tikur Anbessa Ethiopia single origin espresso:

Love single origin espressos? Then a dipper-type lever espresso machine may be your tool of choice

While many coffee descriptions from coffee roasters border on surreal, Intelligentsia's is straight to the point: "[Tikur Anbessa Ethiopia Single Origin Espresso] offers a bounty of tropical fruits ranging from pineapple to peach and mango, with floral notes like jasmine and honeysuckle." I adore Ethiopian coffees and this one is an excellent example as espresso. Fruity without puckering acidity and an ultra clean finish.

A level cut with the stock double basket yields 14 grams. Temperature-wise, I pulled it medium heat; those who want to dampen the brightness may prefer a higher temperature. When using a lever espresso machine, it's perfectly natural that the first third of the extraction progresses slowly. Be patient, apply even pressure, and let the puck fully saturate. Once the stream transitions from dark-dark to medium-dark, reduce the lever pressure to maintain a slow, even flow. The applied pressure is roughly in three stages from full on (40 pounds?) to partial (25 pounds?) to modest pressure (15 pounds?). Your work is rewarded with a clean, fruity, well-balanced espresso.

Who says lever espresso machines are difficult to use? I would have sworn I've made that claim in the past, but today with the Olympia Cremina, it's a forgotten memory. :D
Dan Kehn