The fall & rise of the lever espresso machine

There’s an undeniable romance to the humble spring lever espresso machine. It’s a romance that you can actually taste in the cup, says Hoi Chi Ng

When we first started Coming Soon Coffee in September 2011, we had the idea of keeping things simple, both in terms of machinery and beans. For espresso-based drinks, we serve the choice of two single origin beans at any one time, and to brew, we’re using a two group spring lever machine from Bosco Espresso in Naples.

It’s a basic set-up, but Matthias and I took our time in deciding it would work for us: we read as much as we could online, we compared tasting notes of coffee from modern pump machines and spring lever machines (Prufrock in Leather Lane, London, Vs at Present), and pulled shots of beans we know well at spring lever specialists Londinium Espresso.

So how did we come to choose a spring lever machine over a modern machine?

For us, it’s all about getting the basics right: first, choosing single origin beans, then finding a machine that can make decent shots from them. If that machine harks back to the engineering that created the first “caffè crema”, then it’s perfect.

Visually, with a lever, the process inside the machine is reflected outside, and we love the physical aspect of controlling the process of extraction by literally pulling the lever. It produces a shot that is infinitely more satisfying than one made by just pressing a button or a paddle that relays to electronic controls.

A spring lever machine is different to the espresso machines we normally see in coffee shops, in that they use a spring to achieve the required pressure while “normal” machines use pumps.
As a result, lever machines lack any push buttons or paddles to produce shots because there is no pump to turn on. Instead, one has to pull a lever with force (about 10kg) to load a spring to start the process of genuinely pulling espresso.

The engineering in a spring lever machine predates any pump-driven machines, dating back to the development of Gaggia’s piston-driven espresso machine in 1938. When a barista pulls a shot, they pull down the lever; it loads a spring by elevating a piston into the cocking position. This allows water to enter the brew chamber to pre-infuse the coffee at either boiler or line pressure. When the lever is released, the tensioned spring pushes the piston down, forcing water through the coffee bed.

The various attributes of a spring lever machine results in a slight different cup to most pump machines, often producing a fuller body, more velvety mouth feel and an easier drinking cup, either with single origin beans or blends. Even with little experience, it wasn’t that difficult to repeat decent cups. We put that down to a number of reasons.

First, the barista has full control of the length of the pre-infusion stage (pulling the lever down into cocking position): water enters the brew chamber through four holes and the pressure is at boiler pressure/line pressure. This is different to most pump machines where pre-infusion is preset (except in Synesso, Strada, Slayer). It is believed pre-infusion enables one to reduce chances of channeling so it is much favoured.

Second, on releasing the piston, the pressure reaches a high static pressure of 12bar, or higher in some machines. This forces an even column of water through the coffee bed, whereas in a pump machine, water exits from a couple of small holes at the dispersion plate.

Third, as the piston is pushing down, the pressure naturally decreases to zero very smoothly due to the physicality of the spring. The barista can increase or reduce the pressure by manipulating the lever, which is exactly what some advanced machines try to imitate electronically through the pump. These machines, generally double the cost, and one also
has to deal with electronic components.

Despite all these controls and properties, from talking to a lot of baristas before we started, and also when baristas first started visiting us, it seems that in general they don’t like spring lever machines at all. They think they’re very difficult to use, that they fluctuate in temperature and don’t produce a clean cup.

I guess most baristas learn to operate an espresso machine by pressing a button to turn it on and off, or a paddle. Some work with volumetric control, so anything different makes them sceptical. And with the resistance of the 10kg pull, it may not be so desirable if they have to pull hundreds of shots a day. Moreover, in the old days, there wasn’t automatic refill of water, so the barista has to watch the water level, look at the shots (on how it pulls), and work on milk. It may all seem too much, not to mention if it’s gas controlled.

Furthermore, from previous experience of tasting coffee from spring lever machines, they normally don’t serve very tasty drinks due to location or cultural difference. It was only when Gwilym and Mattias started Prufrock at Present that I saw the potential.

On the issue of temperature fluctuation and control, there are several designs of spring lever machines which give different degrees of consistency and ease of control. We had to learn the behaviour of our machine (a hybrid dipper) when it’s on idle and in use (busy or quiet period). But after that, there seems to be a repeatable pattern that is not too difficult to manage. In an odd way, we speculate whether the machine is designed to have ‘uniform’ temperature or just a range, so that on brewing, it drops, extracting less towards the end to reduce bitterness.

Yet besides these technical attributes, there are a handful of other attributes that makes lever machines stand apart.

Merely from the visual aspect of pulling a shot that is actually coherent to the design of the machine – from pulling down the lever, lifting it, then seeing the lever rising up as the shot brews –well, I don’t know how pressing a button or pushing paddles can replace that. It becomes particularly dramatic when there are multiple levers moving up and down. It’s all very theatrical.

The tactile nature of pulling the lever somehow makes one connect a little more to the working of the machine. I hope that from the customer’s point of view, it is also something of a neat performance.

Of course, there are issues and one needs to be careful. Levers machines have been known to break jaws if there is no resistance in the portafilter. And, on the contrary, if too much coffee is clogging the basket, one cannot just unlock the portafilter, otherwise the pressure of hot water could cause real damage.

But for those few warnings, if you’re looking for a simple, elegant solution for offering quality drinks, then a lever machine definitely makes espresso an enjoyable experience, not to mention a wonderful talking point.If, however, it is more about getting drinks out of the door, then maybe not.

I guess it is like what the head engineer at Simoneli has said: using a spring lever is like riding a Ducati, rather than a modern Honda.

A roaster friend of mine was initially dubious about spring lever machines. But after he had a cup from us and pulled quite a few shots, he got his roastery one and has come to really enjoy the process and, more importantly, the cup.

For the home barista, if one considers buying an espresso machine as a long-term investment, and also includes the long-term cost of the beans used in dialling-in on pump machines, spring lever machines often come as a revelation. We would always recommend trying a lever machine. Just make sure you get a proper one with a commercial group head.