La Pavoni Pro in the hands of pros

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#1: Post by malachi »

As some of you know - I broke my leg really badly a little over three months ago.
I don't handle boredom well - so I've been trying to catch up on some of the things i've not had time to do of late (what with work and all).

The big goals were:
- read the new Illy book (amazing, brilliant - I want to be quality focused more than ever), and
- learn how to use a lever machine.

I got a demo model La Pavoni Pro sent to the Stumptown Roastery. It was all very exciting. Unpacking the box... setting it up in the training room... reading the manual... and then I saw the little black POS tamper. Of course - not only was the thing flimsy plastic, it didn't fit. And (of course) I don't have a tamper that small anywhere.

But I tried. I dosed, I distributed, I tried to tamp... and the second shot was drinkable but it was instantly obvious that I was going to start breaking things if I had to use that tamper.

So I dropped a quick email to Brian at Espresso Parts for a real tamper in itty-bitty size.

The next morning - there was UPS with a gorgeous, perfect tamper. Nice.

I jumped up, filled the machine, turned it on and waited. Anxiously. With bated breath. Seemingly forever. Damn that machine takes a while to heat up!

To kill the time, I filled the Mazzer with some El Salvador CoE Las Nubitas (heh). I pulled a shot on the Linea to calibrate my taste buds and get the grind at least close. And I waited some more.


First shot... grind too coarse.
I knocked the puck out and (as usual) the whole basket went into the knockbox (why isn't there a retaining clip on that thing?).
Tweaked the grind, dosed, distributed, tamped...
Slowly up goes the lever... wait... wait.
Apply pressure. think little old italian guy. Watch for it... Wait for it...
OMG! Look at that espresso! Look at the colours. The crema!!

Amazing... the shot was as good if not better than any shot of Las Nubitas I've had from a La Marzocco. Seriously. It had incredible sweetness and body and the mouthfeel was to die for.

Okay... let's see if that was a fluke.
Turn the machine off. Let it cool. Try not to get irritated by the whole temp thing. Clean the portafilter and the group. Wait. Wait some more...
Fire it up. Repeat.

And not only was that shot just as good as the previous one - it pretty much the exact same flavour profile.

After working with the Pavoni for a week in the Roastery, I took it home along with a Mazzer Mini. The goal was to try and use it in a "real world" environment for a while. More importantly, I wanted to test out my training guide and practice on some other people.

It was an enlightening experience.

There is no doubt in my mind that you can pull shots on the Pavoni that are as good if not better than what you can get from most other machines. There is a very different mouthfeel to the shots that I find really compelling. The shots seem "thicker" and have a very smooth almost buttery feel on the palate.

When you get it right - the shots from this machine are not only better than what I've had from any home machine - they're better than I've had from almost any commercial machine.

That being said... on good days I was throwing away 50% of the shots I pulled. The biggest culprit is the lack of any sort of temperature control. I'm not talking about thermal stability - I'm talking about actual control. It's pretty much a crap shoot. I have become pretty good at knowing when to actually start pulling shots (i.e. when the machine is up to temp) but it's really tempting to start early given that you know you have a limited window before the machine becomes too hot. To compound this, the lack of temp control (and the ever-ramping temp) results in a race not only against time but with the grind. As the machine heats up, the grind changes. Since the machine is constantly heating up... well... you get the picture.

There are other problems as well. The lightweight base is a serious issue. If I owned this machine, I'd either build a new base, weight the current base or bolt the thing to a counter. The fact that everything gets very hot is an issue. The damn portafilter... where do I start with it? I guess first would be the lack of a retaining clip for the basket. It's such a small thing but it becomes SO irritating over time. Then there is the fact that the portfilter inserts backwards as compared to every other machine. And the way the spouts are positioned makes tamping somewhere between hard and impossible.

Now that I've got the negatives out of the way...

If I were going to have a machine at home I don't know if this would be it. But if I were going to have two machines at home this would definitely be one of them. When there is tons of time and you're really trying to evaluate a coffee - this machine is wonderful.
Plus... it's just fun to play with. It feels good!

As for the training...

I trained three people to use the machine total.
First - Stephen Vick. Stephen is a professional barista. He was 3rd at the 2003 USBC. He is the head trainer at Stumptown. It's no shock, therefore, that he was able to get good espresso within his first half dozen attempts. On the other hand, you can argue that it's a bad sign that it took him that long. And his comment was that no-one who was not a pro was going to be able to pull shots without incredible frustration.
Second - my girlfriend Valerie. Valerie is not a pro, but she loves coffee and has been around coffee pros for years and thus knows a lot about the practice. After about a dozen goes over two training sessions she had failed to produce a really good shot. There were some drinkable ones - but no good ones. In the third session there was one good shot - but no other drinkable shots. It was starting to look quite random, and she became frustrated and gave up. This is a bad sign.
Third - Bronwen Serna. Bronwen is a fantastic barista and 2004 USBC champion. As with Stephen, she was able to get good espresso within her first half dozen attempts. Again, that it took this long was a bad sign. Worse was the fact that she was not able to get great espresso period. This was largely due to her small stature and light weight. One thing that has become clear is that this machine is hard to use well if you are very small. You simply don't have the ability to really control the pressure when you're having to work that hard.

So the machine is going back to the lab. I'm done with it - at least for now.
I pulled probably a dozen really good to great shots from it. But I also threw away probably two or three dozen shots.
I've got a lot of respect for the machine. But honestly, it's just about the least practical home machine I can think of.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#2: Post by srobinson »

Really enjoyed your post and comments on the full Pavoni experience. You mentioned a training guide for it. Would love to see if you captured any of your technique and I can compare to mine. I would love to see how you approached dosing, due to the small size of the basket. I am down to grinding into a cup and then distributing from that to keep the mess managable.

Once you get your two hand position right, the machine balances out pretty well and the lite base issue seems to go away.

Did you try any shots with the single filter? Several sites comment that it is impossible to pull a good shot with, but I am getting pretty good results playing around with mine and may publish a pics to bust that myth.

Thanks again for the write up....made my day.
Steve Robinson

LMWDP #001

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malachi (original poster)
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#3: Post by malachi (original poster) »

I didn't have that much problem with dosing to be honest - but then again, I don't mind mess and a little waste. I think this could be a large difference between the home baristas and pro baristas from what I've seen.

I really never felt that the light base problem went away. I hated having to use both hands as it made it impossible to get a really good view of the shot.

I didn't try any single shots. I've never been into them - regardless of machine.

Training Guide in outline with some notes:

A Brief Intro to Using a La Pavoni Professional Lever Machine

The La Pavoni traditional manual lever machine is not only a gorgeous piece of industrial art - in the hands of a skilled barista it is also capable of producing world-class espresso. Producing great espresso is not easy, and requires patience, effort, understanding and skill. The keys to getting good espresso from the La Pavoni include: using high quality, fresh coffee; using the correct grind and grinding with a high quality burr grinder; using the correct amount of coffee and packing it into the basket correctly; understanding the temperature profile of this machine and extracting the coffee at the correct temperature and keeping the equipment clean.

What you'll need:
- La Pavoni Lever Machine
- Coffee
- High-quality burr grinder
- Correctly sized coffee tamper
- Small bar towel

Step One - Fill machine with water.
Unscrew the top of the water tank and fill the tank with filtered (not distilled) cold water. It is suggested that you fill the tank to about 3/4 of it's volume. Tighten the top back on.

Step Two - Turn machine on.
The La Pavoni machine is not intended to be left on and will get hot enough to burn coffee if you do leave it on.

Step Three - Open steam wand valve.
While it is not required, it is a good idea to leave the steam wand valve open while the machine heats. This has two results - first, it bleeds off any residual, "false" pressure if you didn't open the tank and refill and second, it give you a visual and auditory warning when the machine is starting to near brew temperature.

Step Four - Wait for machine to get hot.
This is a good time for you to get your coffee into the hopper of your grinder, clean your countertop, pre-heat a cup, read the newspaper or maybe eat a bowl of cereal. Eventually you will see and hear water coming from the steam-wand and the needle on the pressure gauge will start to rise.

Step Five - Close steam wand valve.
At this point you'll want to close the steam wand valve (and probably wipe up any water that came out). Be very VERY careful when wiping up as the machine gets quite hot. In fact, as a general rule you need to realize that this is an entirely un-insulated machine and pretty much every bit of metal on it gets hot enough to burn you. Be careful!

Step Six - Wait for machine to get to brew pressure.
The needle will continue to rise. When it gets up to 0.9BAR of pressure, you will be ready to prepare to pull your first shot.

Step Seven - Grind coffee.
You should grind about 12grams of coffee for the double basket. The grind needs to be quite fine. Figuring out the exact right grind is half the battle with espresso and tiny adjustments to the grind have large results in the cup. Note that in reality I actually reverse steps 7 and 8 and grind as I dose. I have found, however, that with this machine (perhaps due to the small size of the portafilter) people who have not pulled a lot of shots of espresso struggle with that sequence. Thus, the alteration. In addition, I slightly overdose and find it is incredibly valuable to rotate the portafilter while dosing in order to get better initial distribution.

Step Eight - Remove portafilter and wipe clean.
Carefully remove the portafilter from the machine (again, be careful as the machine is hot). With your small bar towel, wipe the inside of the basket clean and dry. Also wipe down inside the group head.

Step Nine - Fill basket with coffee.
You're going to want to have the coffee form a heaping pile. Using your finger, spread the coffee so that it is evenly distributed in the basket. While I'm a big fan of the Stockfleths method of distribution, the Schomer method seems to work better with the Pavoni. In addition, I've actually found that a small amount of overdosing helps a lot - I lightly rap the portafilter on the grinder fork once and, of course, I apply downwards pressure while distributing.

Step Ten - Pack the coffee in the basket.
Using your tamper, press down lightly (10lbs of pressure) once. Then wipe loose grounds from the portafilter and press down fairly hard (25-35lbs of pressure) to pack the coffee into the basket. Wipe the portafilter clean again. I found that it was a very bad idea to tap the portafilter at all to loosen any grounds. My theory is that the process of pulling air into the chamber is likely to exacerbate any potential gap channeling. Also, due to the weird spout layout, I've found that I get better results if I tamp with the portafilter on the edge of a counter, wedged for stability against the spouts.

Step Eleven - Put the portafilter back into the machine.
You want to make sure that the portafilter is fully and tightly inserted. Again, be careful when it comes to touching the machine - it is hot. Once your portafilter is inserted, put your pre-heated cup under the spouts.

Step Twelve - Lift the lever.
You should lift the lever slowly and steadily. This draws air through the coffee, so yanking it up hard will disturb your carefully distributed coffee. When you reach the top of the lever's stroke, hot water will enter the chamber. You should hold the lever up at the top for a count of ten. This allows the water to gently infuse the top of the coffee.

Step Thirteen - Push down the lever.
If getting the grind right is half the battle, this is the other half. You're going to want to apply smooth, steady and consistent pressure. The pressure required is somewhat significant. Theoretically, your goal is to apply between 40lbs and 50lbs of pressure. With the mechanical advantage of the lever, this will translate to the desired 9BAR extraction pressure. The key is to provide this pressure in a smooth and consistent manner. Again... be very careful of the hot metal on the machine!

Step Fourteen - Watch the espresso.
As you press down the lever, the espresso will begin to flow from the spouts. If the flow gushes and is light in colour then your grind is too coarse. If the flow only trickles, no matter how hard you press, the grind is too fine. The idea is to get that thick, heavy, continuous stream of espresso that looks like super-heated honey. The colour should be a dark, rich brown with hints of red and gold. In the cup, a thick layer of reddish-gold tan foam (crema) should form. With this machine, the ideal extraction should take between 15 and 25 seconds.

Step Fifteen - Taste the espresso.
If the grind was right and the espresso looked right you should taste the espresso. It is likely that the first shot will taste a bit sour as the machine might not be fully up to optimal brew temperature yet. Don't worry if this is the case, just pull another shot. If the shot tastes bitter, you should make the grind a bit more coarse.

Step Sixteen - Adjust your grind (if needed).
Based on how the flow looked, you should adjust your grind either finer (if the espresso pulled too quickly) or coarser (if it was too slow, bitter or didn't flow at all). An important note is that the grind seems to need to go consistently and steadily coarser as the machine heats up. Thus... if your first shot is both sour from the cold machine and slightly too fast, you might not want to adjust the grind much if at all.

Step Seventeen - Return to Step Seven (grind coffee) and repeat.
There are two (very important) differences when repeating this process. First (and foremost) you need to wait a bit to remove the portafilter and you need to be careful while doing so. There will be residual pressure in the portafilter and removing to early or too quickly will result in hot coffee grounds spraying everywhere. In addition, you'll need to knock the old coffee out of the basket before wiping it clean and dry. I tried the "cold towel" trick and found it to be both a hassle and to introduce yet another variable. I got better luck from being patient.

One important note - because these machines get very hot, by the fourth or fifth shot the machine will be so hot it will begin to burn the coffee. If you've not managed to get a good shot by this point, don't despair. Just turn the machine off and let it cool back down (watch the pressure gauge) and start over.

Making great espresso on this machine is an incredibly manual and hands-on activity. You're going to have days when it just doesn't seem to work right, and there will be shots that are simply perfect but you don't know why. Making great espresso is a pursuit and a passion and you never stop learning. Be patient and enjoy the process.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#4: Post by jpkara »

That's a killer write up and it's inspired me to be more focused on my Europiccola technique. I'm wondering about the 40-50lbs of pressure on the lever though.

If I read you right and I'm doing the math correctly, with the 10 to 1 mechanical advantage of the lever that would be around 400-500lbs at the piston. The piston on the Europiccola is just about 1.75 square inches so we end up with about 230 - 285 psi or 15-19 bar.

I imagine that would result in a finer grained emulsion and might contribute to the buttery mouth feel you mentioned. I don't know much about pump machines - do they bypass or divert pressure when they get too high and could one be adjusted to brew at that pressure to compare to the LPP?

Thanks for the instruction sheet. It's great...

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#5: Post by luthier »


I own an europiccola. I always pull a blank shot first, and the following brewing temperature is around 95~96C. IIRC, the second shot(actually the 4th) goes up to 103C!

I've also found cooling the neck of the group with a wet towel(just before brewing) is sufficient to bring down the temperature. I do shoe-shine motion until the little towel is quite warm.

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#6: Post by espressobsessed »

My experience with the Pavoni Pro (vintage) is much the same: to get the best crema, you need to really grind fine, and apply insane amounts of pressure. But it's worth it.

The shots are really smooth and rich... the enjoyment factor is huge on this machine. You can steam some pretty good milk...


...I obtained these results after turning pro. When I used the machine before I started working in the bar environment, I had a difficult time with milk, and I didn't understand what I call "the language" of the machine: that is, understanding the many variables of the machine, and being able to simultaneously manipulate these variables to coax the best results.

I would not recommend the Pavoni Pro as a first machine. I would however recommend it to a seasoned vet, or someone who knows a seasoned vet who can train you.

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#7: Post by srobinson »

Chris, thanks for posting your whole routine. While reading it I had a couple comments/questions:

1) In your heatup stages, you simply waited for steam to come out of the steam tip. Did the machine you were using have one of the newer thermostats? I think these have been out about 8 years and solved some of the heating issues with earlier machines. If you have have both a red and green light, waiting for the green light to turn off means you are at correct pressure.

2) I also pull a blank shot first to heat the head and the portafilter as well as relieve any false pressure

3) You mentioned that you overdose or distribute with pressure. I have found the Pavoni very sensitive to overdosing due to the small basket size and the way the basket locks in. I assume you were doing this to a minor extent.

4) With the double basket were you doing double pulls or single pulls. I usually find it takes about a pull and a half to get a proper sized double before blonding. I tend to not let the first pull bottom out then quickly get the second started.

5) On unlocking the portafilter, if you push up and rotate 45 degree, you can gently wiggle the handle to relieve pressure on the portafilter to prevent spraying. Takes a steady hand and a couple time to master this.

Thanks again for an outstanding write-up.
Steve Robinson

LMWDP #001

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#8: Post by Kaarina »

espressobsessed wrote:... When I used the machine before I started working in the bar environment, I had a difficult time with milk, and I didn't understand what I call "the language" of the machine: that is, understanding the many variables of the machine, and being able to simultaneously manipulate these variables to coax the best results.
I would love to hear what were your difficulties with milk, and how did you solve them?? I am going through the same stage and would appreciate hearing your experiences.

Mike Panic
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#9: Post by Mike Panic »

40-50lbs of pressure on the level downwards? That seems a bit much?

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#10: Post by Sandy »

The "awkward" spout position on the portafilter can be easily changed by putting the spout in a padded vice and, holding the handle of the portafilter, slowly and carefully turn the body of the portafilter counterclockwise (unscrewing it from the spout) until the spouts are at a 90 degree angle to the handle. Don't worry about putting too much pressure on the handle, it is very robust and pretty much unbreakable.
The male threads of the portafilter are slightly tapered, so it is unlikely that the joint between the spout and portafilter will leak. If it does, just unscrew the spout completely, put a bit of loctite on the threads, and screw the spout back on.