What is it about lever espresso machines that is so compelling?
Is it the manual lever machine's elegant design? The unique beverage it produces? Perhaps it is the barista's moment of Zen with the extraction process. In order to make a good espresso on a lever machine you have to live in that moment, nothing else matters for that brief thirty seconds of calm, focused creation.
As the first evaluation of a lever espresso machine on Home-Barista.com, this guide will share not only the unique characteristics of the Gaggia Achille, but the unique experience of an espresso prepared literally by hand and muscle.
Whole Latte Love
If you've visited the forums, you already know that this site is a popular haven for lever lovers. Don't worry if you're new to this type of machine, I'll cover the basics as part of this writeup, beginning with a brief introduction to one of the distingushing design characteristics of lever espresso machines—how the water is delivered to the group. This will help you appreciate one of the reasons the Gaggia Achille is unique among lever espresso machines.
The first type are gravity-fed groups like La Peppina, which has an open kettle boiler perched above the grouphead. Temperature management of lever espresso machines with gravity-fed groups is easy because the boiler is held at brew temperature; the drawback is they cannot steam on demand. Regrettably, the La Peppina is no longer in production.
The second type of lever espresso machines, like the Gaggia Factory, La Pavoni Europiccola, and Elektra Microcasa a Leva, rely on steam pressure to push the boiler water up a group feed tube and into the piston chamber. Since the boiler is at pressure, steam is always available. However, most lever machines with this design overheat the brew water after the third or fourth shot, turning those thirty seconds of espresso joy into thirty seconds of bitterness.
Being based on a heat exchanger, the Gaggia Achille represents a third less common design among lever espresso machines. This unique solution to brew temperature management means the Achille can make espresso and steam milk for cappuccinos all day long, similar to its much bigger siblings among semi-commercial espresso machines. It does however require the barista to perform an extra step known as a "cooling flush" prior to the extraction in order to produce the desired brew temperature.
The Appendix goes into further detail about the distinguishing characteristics of lever espresso machine designs. For the general principles on how semi-commercial heat exchanger espresso machines work, see Espresso Machines 202.
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Back in the late 1800 to early 1900s, the first pressure brewing methods were emerging. These pressurized percolators earned the moniker of 'espresso brewed coffee' due to the reduced percolation time and individual serving capability. The coffee was brewed 'expressly for you' one cup at a time. These early espresso machines used steam to generate the brewing pressure. Unfortunately, the steam not only accelerated the percolation of coffee, but imparted a bitter, burnt taste due to the high temperatures and direct contact of steam with the coffee grounds.
In the 1930s, Sr. Cremonese patented the screw piston mechanism. This allowed for manual pressurization of the percolation group rather than by steam pressure. High pressure steam no longer came in contact with the ground coffee, which greatly improved the taste of the coffee. In 1938, Achille Gaggia applied for a patent for the rotative screw piston group.
Mr. Gaggia never perfected the screw piston group. The design, while an improvement on the older steam pressure machines, still had many mechanical flaws. His next idea was to use a spring powered vertical driven piston. The spring would provide constant pressure to the group piston. Achille Gaggia discovered that using a consistent and fine coffee grind in conjunction with the spring powered piston, he could percolate a 'short black' in 15 seconds. The increased pressure also created a reddish brown froth—crema was born. On August 8, 1947 the spring assisted 'espresso machine' was patented, laying the foundation for what we now call espresso.
Lever espresso machines harken back to that original spring piston design of Achille Gaggia. While the modern day pump driven machines are easier to use in some ways, they lose that Old World charm. Many choose a lever espresso machine because of this charm and a desire to become one with the process. The machine must become an extension of yourself and for that brief moment you are reconnected with history.
The Achille arrived with an assortment of parts neatly arranged in the box, including a cup tray, double basket, single basket and a 58mm portafilter. It only took few minutes to screw in the lever arm, fill the reservoir and boiler, and plug it in. The detactable power cord is uncommon among espresso machines, but a good idea to simplify the packaging since the factory only has to drop a different cord in the box instead of fussing with country-specific plugs. This was my first clue that the Gaggia designers were keen on improving on the popular La Pavoni Europiccola series of levers in matters beyond appearance.
The cup holder is large enough to hold three demitasses. The shelf is held away from the boiler on plastic hangers, so the cups placed on it will remain at room temperature. The group, portafilter and lever are shiny chrome plated brass, which lends a nice contrast to the body's brushed stainless steel and the pearled black handles—it's quite an attractive package. The corrugated boiler covers and group handles are reminiscent of Giovanni Achille Gaggia's first lever espresso machine designs.
As is often the case, the stock web photos of the Gaggia Achille do not do it justice. The machine boasts a clear coated brushed stainless steel body and base with a chrome plated group, lever and pearl-handled portafilter with black accents.The lever's pearl handle provides a very good grip, which is important when you are laying on the lever with the forty pounds of force necessary to create 9 bars of brew pressure.
In addition to the sharp looks, three features are especially noteworthy:
How many times have you read about someone looking for options to secure their lever machine to the kitchen counter? The Achille uses a black plastic base that appears the same as any other, but with the addition of five nickel-sized sticky rubber feet. These do a superb job of anchoring the machine to the countertop.
The La Pavoni style lever machines have a screw under the drip tray. I always found that to be a curious location for a screw. Any water that splashes over the drip tray will run to the bottom of the drip tray holder, then around that screw and into the base of the machine, leading to potential electrical shock hazard and rust. That cannot happen with the Achille's seamless stainless steel base.
With many lever espresso machines, you had better not touch the machine's exterior while it is running! The Achille wraps a brushed stainless steel facade around its stainless steel boiler. After three hours of use, the outside is nicely warm to the touch.
The Achille is larger than most home lever espresso machines. The machine measures 17½" tall, 22½" deep (from the back of the removable cup rack to the end of the lever extended to its horizontal position) and 9½" wide from the steam valve to the manometer. Gaggia lists the weight as 9 kilograms, which is just short of 20 pounds dry.
If you have a particular basket or tamper preference, you will be pleased with the Achille's use of the ubiquitous 58mm commercial portafilter. The portafilter's bowl is deep enough to accommodate the stock double basket as well as a standard 58mm triple basket (not included).
The group on the Achille is massive. It is twice the size of my Gaggia Factory and makes up a substantial portion of that 9 kilogram weight. The group and portafilter are made of chrome plated brass. The group pivot is held together by two large countersunk flat head screws. Gone are the C-clip retainer pins seen on many other levers—and good riddance. The group has a very commercial appearance.
If you have never had the experience of painting your kitchen with coffee grinds, you are lucky. It truly is a mess. Fortunately, the Achille has a feature that greatly reduces the chance of this happening, despite not having an automatic 3-way valve to release the brew pressure after an extraction. The slots in the grouphead that accept the portafilter lugs are sloped such that you can release pressure without detaching the portafilter. A quarter rotation and the pressure will vent, as shown in Videos. Any water and coffee grounds will flow down the sides of the portafilter into the drip tray, not all over your countertop and walls!