WTF is it with Lever Machines?

Each issue, Caffeine tackles some of the complexities associated with the coffee industry. Here, we attempt to explain the resurgence of lever espresso machines.

Leading espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco has launched the Leva, a new lever espresso machine, as part of its 90th birthday celebrations. Fellow machine maker Conti launched its own version, the Project 60, earlier this year as part of its 60th birthday celebrations (see a trend here?). So what on Earth is a lever machine? And why the big hoo-ha? 

In a world rapidly moving towards greater efficiency and automation, this appears to be a backwards step for two of coffee’s major players. The lever machine, after all, was invented in 1945 and has been superseded by all manner of modern technology. 

In a traditional lever machine, you pull the lever and water flows from the boiler into the brewing chamber. As the lever is released, a spring pushes the water through the coffee puck. Lever machines undoubtedly evoke a romantic notion of the coffee-making process – plus they look really cool. But do they provide any benefit to the barista or customer? 

“With a lever, you literally feel the coffee – it’s a direct mechanical connection between barista and coffee puck,” says Ant, aka the Anarchista Barista from Black Chapel in Wandsworth. “I know during preinfusion of a coffee if it will channel or even choke, and can fix it.” 

From personal experience, we can attest that espresso shots pulled on a lever machine have greater body and mouthfeel, and do taste better than those pulled on a modern machine. 

The traditional lever had several drawbacks, though. The main one was temperature instability, which made consistency difficult, but even if you could control that it was too slow to use in a busy shop. So how do these modern versions bring the lever up to date?

Conti’s Chris Austin says the idea behind the Project 60 was to create “something beautiful”. When he was helping design it, he says, “I asked, why not build a multiboiler lever machine, pack it full of common sense and remove the screens, shot timers and anything digital? Make it look like a classic car.”

Where Conti has refined it, the La Marzocco team in Florence has completely reimagined it. “The Leva isn’t so much about a romantic homage to the past as it is about bringing an older piece of iconic espresso technology into the future,” says a company spokesperson. “We’ve combined advanced technologies with traditional ideologies, developing in-house electronics and engineering mechanisms to deliver cutting-edge performance. The Leva allows the barista to monitor, analyse and intervene in more brewing variables than ever before on a lever machine.”

Among the Leva’s advancements are a more ergonomic lever that requires less effort to pull (and avoids the danger of the arm flying up); the ability to adjust the preload on the spring, which changes the pressure profile; and the ability to change the amount of water going through the puck. Multiple boilers, meanwhile, create a stable, repeatable process.

Ant takes a different view of the machine’s benefits, quoting Karl Marx’s theory on alienation of labour: “In late capitalist production the worker invariably loses the ability to determine destiny, when deprived of the right to be the director of their own actions.” A lever, he says, “reassuringly gives a direct mechanical link between the worker and their labour.”

We at Caffeine believe these new lever machines are a great means of both celebrating the past and looking to the future. With their classic design and superior product, they will act as a centrepiece to any café, and bring beauty and theatre to the coffee-making process.