A Lesson from Christopher Cara in Using a La Pavoni Home Lever Espresso Machine

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Nov 27, 2010, 1:48 pm

Note: These instructions are are split off from my earlier thread on questions for Christopher Cara Any Questions to Ask Chris Cara? so you can have a standalone copy. Later add: My 11/27 post on that thread gives additional context to this lesson.

(This applies to Europiccola, Professional and Stradivari models.)

Preparation

Fill the machine to at least ¼ inch from the bottom and top of the sight glass. Make sure the steam valve is closed before turning it on or you risk damaging expensive parts. Heating time may be as little as four minutes if you preheat some water only in a microwave and immerse the portafilter in that afterward. This is only good where the first pull is for an espresso. It also saves water in the tank compared to pulling water through an empty portafilter and basket to preheat. As the machine heats up, the machine will hiss at the large nut to the right of the steam valve. Before you pull the first shot, briefly open the steam valve to eliminate false pressure Can someone please explain false pressure? .

Tuning the fineness of the grind allows you to hit the sweet spot between choking the machine and underextracting. You'll know you've got too coarse a grind if the pull goes too quickly with little resistance. If you've choked the machine with too fine a grind, don't bear down with a "gorilla pull" or Christopher warns, "You risk breaking the piston arm and your jaw"!

Grind and tamp are very different than what I use for pump machines. Grind is finer and tamp, if any, is very light, mostly to distribute the coffee and leave about 1/8 inch head room in a double basket. Christopher spooned about half the grounds into basket, which was inserted in the portafilter, tapped it once on the counter, then tamped lightly to level before spooning in the rest and again tamped and polished lightly. This reduced emphasis on precise tamping with greater emphasis on leveling may at least partly explain why Italian manufacturers ship espresso machines with crude, poorly fitted tampers. For practice at home, Christopher ground a small amount of coffee to take with me to dial in my grinder. Others without that opportunity might buy a small amount of Italian coffee, pre-ground for espresso.

The Pull

Raise the lever for a count of five. Espresso may start to drip into your cup, or not. At this point, Christopher uses a two-handed pull, with one hand over the other, and only moderate exertion. If you want to do a one-handed pull, you can steady the machine with your other hand on the plastic tank cap. Unlike the orthodoxy of about 25 seconds, Christopher's pull only takes about 10 seconds. He says remember that using a lever machine with its different grind and other characteristics takes its own technique, so practice! There's a "feel" to this amount of resistance, and practicing it with someone experienced helped me gain confidence in the level of resistance to expect. And no, we didn't put the machine on a bathroom scale to measure pressure like you do with tamping! This is one area where I want to experiment with grind and tamp for a longer pull and try this with different coffees.

Along these lines I asked Christopher about the Fellini move Fellini does espresso, where one recocks the lever for a second pull part way through the first. He says he prefers to pull all the way through and for a second pull would recock and do a full pull. But that's not his method. He does only one pull, which fills a demitasse cup about halfway. When I do two full pulls, the second is too watery for my taste using his beans and other blends. He suggested that I could experiment by interrupting the pull part-way and seeing how it tastes. I asked whether one should be concerned about how fast one lifts the lever for the second pull, whether this disturbs the puck. He said it probably wouldn't make any difference, which brings to mind another frequent comment of his, that "sometimes you won't get good results no matter what you do."

Many have noted the "portafilter sneeze" with these Pavonis where pressure can be suddenly released with a spray of hot grounds on removing the portafilter. He says you can safely remove it when the lever comes to rest in the fully down position. Otherwise, there's residual pressure. I press the lever down a few times at the bottom of its travel to release most of the pressure. I sometimes also let it rest until it settles. When I remove the portafilter, I press it slightly upward so if a small amount of pressure is released, it won't sneeze.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Nov 27, 2010, 1:49 pm

Milk Texturing

Before my lesson with Christopher, I struggled with milk texturing on my Pavoni. I had been used to doing this on my Isomac Amica and Olympia Express Coffex. The Coffex only requires one turn to fully open the steam valve and the Amica about two. He had me fully open the steam valve on the Pavoni in a hurry, because it took a full nine turns on my machine. The number of turns can differ between individual machines. This released its very adequate steaming capacity. He suggested that to get a sense of this, I should try opening the steam valve into a large cup at home without actually steaming anything so I can see the pressure that's released, which can vary by machine. This suggestion was very helpful as I get full pressure at about five turns.

Before steaming milk, Christopher suggested I briefly open the steam valve to be sure the tip is clear. Then turn it off, immerse the tip in the milk, and fully open the valve. The steam tips on these Pavonis are removable, showing a clear line where they come off. He recommended I immerse the tip in the milk to that line. When the milk starts to foam, immerse it in the foam to that line and very carefully watch that level, lowering the cup as the milk stretches. This part is very precise. He gets a very good microfoam, of course. I've improved but need more practice.

I had learned to hold the body of the cup in my hand to sense temperature and when it approaches discomfort, stop steaming, especially since I use soy milk (the Pacific Select Soy Low Fat Vanilla they use at Blue Bottle is my current favorite, with Silk Vanilla Light my second choice). Soy milk separates at a lower temperature than the cow's milk we used. During this lesson, we used whole milk. He suggested that I hold the handle because the cup would get too hot and instead guide myself by the sound. He said there are three to four discernible pitches, getting lower as steaming progresses. As it approaches the low roar of a jet engine, start closing the steam valve so you can turn it off when it reaches that pitch. This morning I tried his method, and it worked well with my soy milk. I briefly touched the bottom of the tin and it was uncomfortably hot, but no separation had occurred. I later found I still need to be cautious to not overheat it or separation can occur. When Christopher finished milk texturing, some of the foam at the top was slightly less dense. He moved the tin back and forth horizontally to mix these together before pouring.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary
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Postby drgary » Nov 27, 2010, 1:49 pm

Some Maintenance Tips

He said if the steam tip clogs, remove it and use a straight pin to clear it. Don't use a paperclip because these can break off and get stuck in the tip. I haven't run into this need, since I purge the tip after steaming. When I'm done preparing espresso, I also purge the group into a cup with the portafilter removed. Then I use a group brush and wipe the group clean. He endorsed this step and said when asked that there's no need to backflush lever machines.

Water easily collects under the small, plastic drip tray, which quickly rusts the base and can also freeze the screw in place at the bottom of the tray. The prior owner of my machine sold it to me for a song because he'd created that problem! So, be sure to remove the plastic drip tray and wipe the base dry after each use.

Some Final Observations

Before getting my Pavoni, I was concerned it would be difficult to use a lever machine. My experience has been almost the opposite. I find that using these machines goes more by intuitive feel than the careful distribution, tamping and temperature control I must exert with my Isomac Amica and its large, commercial portafilter. I like to benefit from others' experiences to shorten my learning curve. Christopher quickly put me right for restoring my machine and using it well enough that I can experiment on my own from here.

Many have written about temperature control issues with La Pavoni home lever machines. Christopher's microwave heating technique is very effective. Others have complained these machines easily overheat, so they shut them off to cool and time them after turning them on to get the right temperature. Another thread on this site suggested running cool water on the portafilter. I find that works. I quickly cool it to about room temperature with the group otherwise fully heated to pull the Cara dark roast. I cool it much less for pulling Intelligentsia Black Cat and other lighter roasts and am liking the results. I measure the temperature by briefly touching the portafilter. If you're using a Pavoni for the first time, beware that the boiler and group and steamer are fully exposed and boiling hot, so use caution, and keep them away from children.

Gary Seeman
LMWDP #308
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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KnowGood

Postby KnowGood » Nov 28, 2010, 11:04 am

Was it a stock Pavoni with the 3 hole tip? If one is just starting out it helps to know where one should have the 3 hole tip - which is dead centre and straight down. Single hole to the side and slight angle as shown by brooklynshot:



As for the Fellini and disturbing the puck, it all depends on your grind and how you tamp. Here is my daily ritual with a slight Fellini:

Lyndon
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LMWDP #251

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Nov 28, 2010, 1:19 pm

Thanks, Lyndon, for the question and suggestions and the great videos!

Yes, it was a stock tip and it was pointed straight down. Christopher emphasized that it takes lots of practice to master foaming, and he did quite well. I'm making it harder on myself by foaming soy, of course. My foaming is better since his lesson, but I'm still not getting satisfactory microfoam and find it easiest with my Maximatic. The soy milk I use can be microfoamed because the baristas at Blue Bottle are able to do it with the same product. I just ordered one of Brooklynshot's single-hole tips to see if it will offer an improvement.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

topotail

Postby topotail » Nov 28, 2010, 1:41 pm

I missed the earlier thread on questions for Chris Cara, but can't resist describing my bizarre experience with him some years ago. I walked into his shop to inquire about his espresso blend. He showed it to me and it was immediately apparent that the beans were hopelessly charred. I told him I didn't think I was interested in the beans and he offered to make me a coffee. He ground some of the beans and pulled a watery looking shot without a suggestion of crema, then inquired, "Is that enough or would you like another pull?" I was stunned and began to probe a bit, quickly discovering that he had never heard of David Schomer or any other prominent roasters of the day, knew nothing about the espresso culture then blossoming in the Pacific Northwest, and had never been to Italy.

I sincerely hope that he has taken the trouble to educate himself on espresso since my visit, and I'm sure he knows more about how lever machines work than anyone else one is likely to encounter, but I still cringe at the idea of him giving lessons on anything having to do with espresso preparation.

I should add that I also sampled an espresso made his father, Thomas Cara, prepared with preground coffee from a jar, and it was even worse than the one Chris made me.

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Nov 28, 2010, 2:35 pm

Hi Richard,

I'm not the only H-B person to have tried and liked Christopher's coffee. I can't comment on his knowledge of the current espresso scene. I pull the beans much cooler than he does and I like the result much more and it does yield crema. His father actually didn't sell that blend, which has only been offered, per Christopher, for the last 10 years or so. I'd be interested in others' impressions. When pulled cool, I found it smooth and nuanced, but I'm relatively new to this, although I have been exposed to Blue Bottle's offerings at two of their kiosks and did taste Rituale shots pulled by Doug Jamieson on an Elektra at the SF H-B get together, so I'm not starting with a totally naive palate. Christopher's blend is a darker roast than those others. I offer this lesson from Christopher to add to the mix and for others to try the technique. You may find it helpful to read what I posted yesterday on the other thread to get more context for this one. They had been written to go together, but I agreed with Dan's (HB) suggestion to split them so this one can be more easily searched. I found it especially helpful to get a sense of the resistance of his grind, and I prefer his two-handed pull for balance and control than my former one-handed technique.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

topotail

Postby topotail » Nov 28, 2010, 3:33 pm

Hi Gary--

I did look at the other thread, and it does appear that Chris gave you some useful advice. Re his coffee, I remember Chris telling me that it's based on a blend he found among his father's papers, and I remember thinking that a blend Thomas came up with presumably used commodity coffees of the day, and that whatever "Brazilian" or "Guatemalan" coffee Chris might source today would likely be significantly different from those Thomas bought.

Anyway, I suppose I shouldn't be judging Chris on the basis of a meeting that was probably 12 or 15 years ago, and I applaud you and others who choose to take on the challenge of lever machines, which clearly require a degree of skill far beyond what's necessary for a semiautomatic machine like my ECM Giotto.

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Nov 28, 2010, 5:26 pm

Richard wrote:

I applaud you and others who choose to take on the challenge of lever machines, which clearly require a degree of skill far beyond what's necessary for a semiautomatic machine like my ECM Giotto.


What has surprised me the most is that a lever machine seems to take less skill than my semi-auto machines! I've just now turned to my Amica to soothe its abandonment anxieties after practicing for weeks on the Pavoni. Alas! I pulled no less than 4 sink shots because it seems much fussier for grind and tamp, and I'm doing temperature control with a PID instead of just feeling the temperature of the PF with my hand and cooling it under the sink to adjust.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

MattJ

Postby MattJ » Dec 11, 2010, 11:29 pm

Gary, in the description you give of Chris's shot (5 seconds of pre-infusion and a 10 second pull) may I ask how much volume was produced?

thanks.