What makes lever espresso different?

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drH
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#1: Post by drH »

I've read (and experienced) the difference between lever espresso and "regular" pump espresso and the claim I usually hear is that levers produce smoother and sweeter shots.

Somehow, I'd like to believe this, and when I make espresso on my Cremina I can detect the difference. But as a scientist I can't help but wonder if this is confirmation bias. What are the specific things that actually make the extraction smoother? Are they really only possible on lever machines?

Certainly the decreasing pressure profile is the usual candidate. But there is also a slightly decreasing temperature profile in a lever shot. Of course, in a manual lever the pressure is constantly adjustable to deliver the flow you want, and this can help make the best of an otherwise badly prepped puck.

So this leads me to wonder whether machines that allow flow control (like the Lelit Bianca) can reproduce a the lever taste. Will the flow adjustment alone do the trick? Will the Decent espresso machine, with a declining profile actually make a shot indistinguishable from a lever? Or, if you are using a standard 9-bar pump machine, can you achieve similarly smooth/sweet shot by flexing skills with dose, output and puck prep?

The combination of decreasing pressure and decreasing temperature seems unique to levers since even the Decent may have trouble with a temperature change from, e.g., 208F to 200F during the course of the shot. Does this matter?

This rambling is really a call to those experts out there who have done side-by-side comparisons of levers vs non-levers or who have flow/pressure profiling machines and can weigh in on how those shots compare to levers. Is all of this mystique about levers really a combination of nostalgia and theater because you can achieve the same thing with modern digital machines or is there still something special about lever extraction in 2020?
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forbeskm
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#2: Post by forbeskm »

You can do all the fancy pressure profiling, graphing, etc but they'll never be as quiet as a manual lever :). That's what I love and the small footprint of the Cremina.

Perhaps you can bury the rotary pump in the cabinet with some insulation and come close.. so that answers your reading but not your deeper question of can you replicate a lever on a pump.

VoidedTea

#3: Post by VoidedTea »

drH wrote:I've read (and experienced) the difference between lever espresso and "regular" pump espresso and the claim I usually hear is that levers produce smoother and sweeter shots.
....
This rambling is really a call to those experts out there who have done side-by-side comparisons of levers vs non-levers or who have flow/pressure profiling machines and can weigh in on how those shots compare to levers. Is all of this mystique about levers really a combination of nostalgia and theater because you can achieve the same thing with modern digital machines or is there still something special about lever extraction in 2020?
As a new manual lever enthusiast, I do catch myself thinking that I have never experienced sweeter and better tasting espresso than what I am getting from my manual lever. But then again, I never used freshly roasted beans before, good grinder, or an expensive machine with pressure profiling. So I just done know what a good machine is capable of. So I do wish there were more answers in this thread from people who have done proper comparison.

In the meantime, I would agree with another poster. At the very least, my results are not worse than what a machine can produce. So, in addition to similar, if not better, tasting espresso, I am getting more counter space, quiet and often faster operation, lower maintenance, and better cost-benefit ratio. What I am losing is milk drinks and the ability to serve espresso in large quantities. I am good with that.

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drgary
Team HB

#4: Post by drgary »

drH wrote:I've read (and experienced) the difference between lever espresso and "regular" pump espresso and the claim I usually hear is that levers produce smoother and sweeter shots.

Somehow, I'd like to believe this, and when I make espresso on my Cremina I can detect the difference. But as a scientist I can't help but wonder if this is confirmation bias. What are the specific things that actually make the extraction smoother? Are they really only possible on lever machines?

Certainly the decreasing pressure profile is the usual candidate. But there is also a slightly decreasing temperature profile in a lever shot. Of course, in a manual lever the pressure is constantly adjustable to deliver the flow you want, and this can help make the best of an otherwise badly prepped puck.

So this leads me to wonder whether machines that allow flow control (like the Lelit Bianca) can reproduce a the lever taste. Will the flow adjustment alone do the trick? Will the Decent espresso machine, with a declining profile actually make a shot indistinguishable from a lever? Or, if you are using a standard 9-bar pump machine, can you achieve similarly smooth/sweet shot by flexing skills with dose, output and puck prep?

The combination of decreasing pressure and decreasing temperature seems unique to levers since even the Decent may have trouble with a temperature change from, e.g., 208F to 200F during the course of the shot. Does this matter?

This rambling is really a call to those experts out there who have done side-by-side comparisons of levers vs non-levers or who have flow/pressure profiling machines and can weigh in on how those shots compare to levers. Is all of this mystique about levers really a combination of nostalgia and theater because you can achieve the same thing with modern digital machines or is there still something special about lever extraction in 2020?
This is a helpful post as a conversation starter. I've highlighted some of the things that stand out for me. I'll add without experimental data that I believe the decreasing pressure and temperature in a spring lever reduces overextraction (while extracting desired flavors more fully) as does the reduction of channeling by backing off pressure in a manual lever. You can do this with a spring lever, simply by holding the lever back. I guess, again without experimental data, that softer lever pressure and perhaps greater temperature decline create a shot with more distinct flavor notes at the cost of some viscosity unless one deliberately updoses. I have a commercial Conti Prestina spring lever with moderate spring pressure - starting at 8 bar - and with a large temperature drop during the shot, because it's a dipper. It has very layered flavor, similar to an Elektra Microcasa a Leva. There are many versions of spring levers, some with stronger springs, and some with heated groups through means like heat cartridges and thermosyphons that may have less temperature drop, if any. I don't know whether this is an advantage.

For some coffees I prefer my HX pump machine (Olympia Express Coffex) that ramps up to pressure and then applies it constantly. For some coffees I want the sweet middle of the shot emphasized with dense mouthfeel, and its high pressure is good for that. I expect that there is some temperature drop in the group but haven't measured it, because it is a "dragon" heat exchange machine where group temperature is cooled with a flush.

Some of the expert information you're seeking may be found in posts by owners of pressure/flow/temperature profiling machines who also have levers, or in some of the Decent Espresso discussions about simulating other machines. You may find the Jim Schulman review of the Bezzera Strega helpful along with his FAQ about dialing in shots by taste.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

Eres

#5: Post by Eres »

Yes, the declining pressure and temperature during the shot make the difference

foam2

#6: Post by foam2 »

I just bought a 67 Cremina over the weekend and pulled my first shot this morning at work. First shot was ok but I'm sure I will learn it and looking forward to reading more on this post as well as the others on the cremina. First impressions are it seems this machine likes a finer grind than a pump machine.

VoidedTea

#7: Post by VoidedTea » replying to foam2 »

I use manual lever (Cafelat) and, interestingly, found the opposite - I had to increase the grind size and updose to 19-20 grams to get the best results from medium roast. Finer grind increased my extraction time to almost 50 seconds and consistently resulted in too much sourness in the taste. I concluded that longer pull decreases the temperature to the point when in the last 15-20 seconds I am only pulling sour notes. Increasing grind size to keep extraction time under 25 seconds at 8 bars made big improvement, no sourness, just sweetness. With darker roasts, I was getting some campfire notes with the same grind, reducing water temperature solved that problem as well.

Theoretically, I would assume that what work best on one type of lever, would work best on all levers. It would be strange if, given the same coffee beans, one type of lever would need finer grind and another coarser grind to produce similar taste. For that reason I wanted to share my findings even though you have a very different lever. Of course, I assume that all levers, regardless of the type, employ the same extraction process in principle.

foam2

#8: Post by foam2 »

I could only dose 15grams but it was finer than the rocket using the e37s. I will grind 15 grams on the lagom at home and bring it with me to work to see if there is a difference on the cremina. It is fun to play around and so far the first two shots from the cremina have been ok but I'm sure there is a little tweaking to be done to get to great.

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drgary
Team HB

#9: Post by drgary »

This seems to be drifting off topic, but maybe not, because adjusting to a lever after using a pump machine is part of the question. FWIW I linked above Jim's FAQ on dialing in shots. With a manual lever like the Cremina (I have mine currently on the counter), you can control the pressure manually and emulate a spring lever or you can vary that. You can measure group temperature by adding a thermometer or temperature strips.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

Rufus T.F.

#10: Post by Rufus T.F. »

A fascinating topic, so let's get back to the eponymous question: what makes lever espresso different. I made a little unscientific experiment in the summer, that needs a bit of an introduction first.

There is a manual lever machine hand-made in Poland in small batches. It is called Kazak Rota. It uses Europiccola's basket and a crank instead of a lever to create pressure. And it's analogue - you need to supply your own boiling water by whatever means. I was looking for something portable for expected post-lockdown summer treks. Since the opinions on the Polish coffee forum about Rota were quite enthusiastic, plus its build is pretty much apocalypse-ready, I went out and bought Rota. The quality of espresso from it surprised me so much that I was using it basically all summer wherever I went. After one longer trip I came back home, concluded that the espresso from my Bianca tastes different and set out to find a profile on Bianca that matches the one from Rota.

First I tried to rule out as many variables as possible. Since Rota uses the Europiccola basket, it takes around 15g of coffee, so that became my base. I matched it on Bianca with the 15g VST, a favourite of mine anyway. Every two days I would change coffee. I dialed it in for Rota first, aiming at around 1:2 ratio, then modifying to what I liked best. Then I would make a shot on Bianca with the same parameters, compare taste, and then modify in search of a similar taste profile to the Rota one. I did regular 1:2 shots on 9b, I experimented with preinfusions, descending pressure profiles etc. The Rota has a manometer, so it was quite easy to see what was happening pressure-wise and mimic it mechanically on Bianca. Of course, the were still variables outside my measurable control, like the flow or exact temperature of extraction (no way of knowing it on Rota).

A series of over-caffeinated days later I arrived at the conclusion that there are irreducible differences between the machines. And it's not that one machine was making consistently better shots. Just different. The Rota shots were often more essential, oily, sweeter, with fuller mouth. Bianca was making shots that were a bit brighter and fruitier, but certainly clearer, more joyful. One has a bit more bass, the other clearer treble. It was pretty much like comparing good quality loudspeakers, where you hear a clear difference, but like both types of sound. The closest I was getting between them was when I was decreasing the ratio on Bianca to around 1.6-1.8 or updosing on the 15g VST basket. I also switched on Bianca to a 17g Strada basket and got pretty close results.

So here's my three cents on the topic. It's not really the decreasing pressure - you can mimic that on a pump machine with pressure/flow profiling and still get a different cup. I'm also not really too convinced by the decreasing/increasing temperature argument. The shots from Rota are always noticeably cooler than on Bianca (the construction is a heat sink) and yet they usually felt very well extracted. I think what should be paid more attention to is the difference in basket geometry. The same 15g of coffee extracts differently when the puck is narrower but higher. And the most popular levers seem to be the ones with baskets of much smaller diameter than the regular 58mm pump machines.

By the way, the experiment was a lot of fun (and caffeine). So if autumn in your part of the world is as awful as it is in mine and you don't mind a bit of overcaffeination, I recommend it. It's turned out to be very educational to try to mimic one machine's cup on another one. For slightly different reasons I did a similar experiment a few weeks later, comparing Rota to Caravel/VAM (43.5mm basket), i.e. manual lever to manual lever. The results confirmed again that there are some differences you just cannot reconcile. Let's call it a soul of the machine. And I think a big part of that soul is the basket.