My apologies on the lateness and incoherence of this report; I wasn't intending to write it up, so I'm missing most of the journalistic basics.
Counter Culture Coffee is opened up a training facility in Chicago, and as their opening event, hosted a stopover of Gwilym Davies's US tour, sponsored by Nuova Simonelli. Gwilym Davies is the 2010 World Barista Champion, and runs his espresso shop out of a South London clothing store. There he pulls shots with a 3 group Victoria Arduino lever machine. Nuova Simonelli owns the Victoria Arduino marque, and the tour co-stars the machine and Gwilym. Supporting them at the Counter Culture was a lunch, a state of the art brew bar, and a selection of Counter Culture Coffees in goodie-bags.
The event drew the top Chicago baristas, including Stephan Morrissey of Ireland, another former WBC champ, who now works for Intelligentsia. It is not every day you gets a chance to go hands on with a lever machine; and it's not every lifetime that the chance comes with a WBC champion as coach. So this was a well attended party.Gwilym Davies, the Victoria Arduino Lever, and Assembled Baristas
Rich Futrell of Counter Culture told me they will be having the same Friday open houses they have in North Carolina; and that this will certainly become a destination for future Chicago hobbyist gatherings. But otherwise, I was too intent on gathering nuggets of lever wisdom to do any more journalism.
I was able to make about 5 shots with the Victoria Arduino, using a blend I somewhat know, Counter Culture's Apollo.
In terms of usability, the machine was no more difficult to use than a motor pump machine. The only proviso is that while it only requires a modest amount of upper body strength, a lot less than home levers, pulling a shift of shots might still be a strain. Other than that, it is a piece of cake. The group, made by Astoria, can be flushed and the PF removed after shots by lowering the lever about half way. There is a detent for the preinfusion, so the lever never needs to be held, just pulled and released.
In terms of dialing in shots, it is mixed news. It was impossible to pull a bad shot, tight grind or loose, high dose or low, the shot pulled, and tasted sweet and smooth. But none of the shots really popped; neither mine, nor the other baristas, not even Gwilym's. Moreover, while I know how to change dose and grind based on the prior shot's taste with motor pump machines, I wasn't able to "read" the taste of the lever shots in the same way. Reading these shots requires a new skill set.
This sets the stage for what Gwilym said about using lever machines.
He uses mostly coffees from Square Mile Roasters, and expects to spend about 2 to 4 days getting a new blend right. Therefore he uses only one coffee at a time, and sticks with it as long as possible. In his talk, he emphasized that very subtle changes make the difference for shots that pop and shots that are just fine.
This leads to some surprises on how he handles the machine.
The VA lever is an HX. So, if the group is idle, you can pull a "sipper" (a lever using straight boiler water) style shot, with a cool group and an overheated HX, or you can flush, or make paced shots on one group, and get a hotter group with cooler water, like in a conventional pump/HX machine. Most of the people pulling shots went the second route, flushing the group, and equalizing temperatures, before pulling shots. This is what I did, without giving it a moment of thought.
But Gwilym will idle each group after the shot, and let it cool (and the HX water heat), while he moves on to the next group. In effect, he uses the machine at about half the pace per group than a normal pump machine, although with flushing and exhausting, he could run it a full pace. His demeanor overwhelmingly suggests that he is perfectly willing to spend however long it takes to pull the perfect shot; so he wants the machine to always be at the same equilibrium. I asked why he doesn't replicate the faster paced equilibrium of fast paced or flushed HX shots, and my impression was that this was an aesthetic decision. However, I don't know enough about this. Counter-intuitive as it sounds, levers may just work better with the sipper thermal profile than the HX one.
I apologize again for not being able to supply more detail; I don't even know enough about levers at this point to ask the right questions or make informative adjustments on the machine.