Welcome to the jungle

by Claudio Santoro, Simone Forgia
La Pavoni Europiccola, Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, Olympia Cremina SL, FEAR La Peppina, Strietman CT2, Bezzera Strega, Flair Pro 2

When approaching the world of lever espresso machines, choosing the right model is almost never an easy task. There are many valid alternatives in the market and also many variables to consider. Especially in the domestic category, one might think that all models are very similar and that they differ mainly in aesthetic factors; however, as we will see in this buying guide, they can also have very different operating principles.

To highlight the above, let's take the following three machines as an example: Strietman CT2, La Pavoni Europiccola and Faema Faemina. First of all, the Strietman and the Pavoni are two direct levers, which means that the coffee is extracted by the pressure that the user exerts directly on the lever, while the Faemina is a spring lever, therefore the user preloads the spring by lowering the lever and the coffee is "automatically" extracted thanks to the pressure exerted by the spring on the piston.

Another point to consider is the position of the grouphead in relation to the boiler. Faemina and Strietman have the grouphead under the boiler, so to load the water into the brewing chamber they mainly take advantage of the force of gravity; on the contrary the Europiccola, having the grouphead positioned at the top, needs to work at a higher pressure (and therefore temperature) to "push" the water from the bottom of the boiler along the pipe until it finally reaches the brewing chamber. Nevertheless, differences do not end here, because for example the type of pre-infusion is also different: in the Strietman, in fact, when the lever is lifted to load the water needed for extraction, all the air in the group flows out, consequently allowing infusion with just water. In the Faemina and Pavoni, on the other hand, together with boiling water, there is also a percentage of air that is trapped inside.

As you may have guessed, the market of lever machines can therefore seem like a real jungle. To unravel this mess, it is therefore first and foremost indispensable to be aware of the variables that characterise each model, only in this way it will then be possible to have an overall view. So let's start with the types of levers which are mainly of two kinds: direct and spring-loaded, the latter can then be further differentiated between domestic and prosumer. 

  • Direct lever: as mentioned above, coffee is extracted in relation to the pressure exerted by the operator directly on the lever. This category includes: La Pavoni Europiccola, Olympia Cremina, Strietman (CT1, CT2 and ES3), Flair Espresso (in the different models), Baby Faemina, Cafelat Robot, Rok Presso, etc. 
  • Domestic spring lever: the coffee is extracted by the spring pressure (previously loaded by lowering the lever) on the piston. This category includes: Faema Faemina, Elektra Microcasa a leva, Olympia Club and Cremina SL, Pontevecchio Export, FE-AR La Peppina, etc.

     

  • Prosumer spring lever: same principle as domestic spring lever machines but with bigger groupheads able to guarantee greater thermal stability, larger boiler tanks and a more powerful spring able to allow extractions at even more than 9 bars. Some machines in this category are: Bezzera Strega, Londinium (in the various models), Profitec Pro800, La Marzocco Leva, Izzo Alex, Quickmill Veloce, La Pavoni Pub Leva, etc.

With regards to the types of boilers, we can distinguish three versions: boilerless, open boiler and closed boiler.

  • Boilerless: these are lever machines that do not have their own heating element that can heat up the water. Examples are the Flair, the Cafelat Robot, the Baby Faemina and the Rok Presso. Their method of use is very simple: you heat the water with an external kettle as you normally do to prepare a tea, as soon as the water stops boiling you pour it into the portafilter and you proceed to extract the espresso.

  • Open boiler: Strietman, Arrarex Caravel. These machines do not have a closed, pressurized boiler, but basically it is like a pot without a lid in which the water necessary to prepare the espresso is heated. This characteristic makes this category of machines very stable in terms of temperature but they don't have enough pressure to create steam.

  • Closed boiler: by exclusion these are all the machines that do not fall into the category "boilerless" and "open boiler". Usually they are the preferred machines when, in addition to extracting espresso, you also want to prepare cappuccinos or in general drinks for the preparation of which you need a steam wand.

In order to outline the requirements and therefore the relative characteristics of the chosen machines, there are then the following questions that should be asked before purchasing a lever-operated machine.

How many consecutive coffees do you generally want to make? How long are you willing to wait before the machine reaches its full operating temperature?

The number of coffees made in succession is one of the most decisive factors in choosing a lever machine. Obviously, in this analysis we should not consider the days when you might have to make more coffee than usual because you may have guests. If you find yourself regularly making more than 2-3 coffees or cappuccinos in a row, the choice of a prosumer lever machine is almost a must. The levers for domestic use in fact, given the small size of the grouphead, begin to suffer from overheating on average after the third coffee.

If you want to consider a prosumer lever machine, however, you have to bear in mind that generally the heating time of those machines is about 40 minutes, and this, although it is an aspect that can be bypassed with a smart-plug, cannot be underestimated from the point of view of significantly higher energy consumption (about 2000W for 40 minutes).

Do you want to make just coffee or also cappuccinos? If it's just coffee, do you require steam or not?

If, in addition to making coffee, you also need to have a steam wand to heat cups or something else, machines with an open boiler or boilerless should only be considered if you want to add to your coffee set a dedicated steamer like the Bellman; otherwise they are to be excluded.

Do you want to use this machine while travelling or not? 

If yes, boilerless machines are certainly the most suitable as this peculiarity makes them very small and normally you don't have to bring the kettle as in most hotels it is already there. Moreover, in some cases, as for example with the Flair, a practical carrying case is already provided. A manual coffee grinder is an absolute must.

How much space do you have available on the kitchen top?

Sometimes people desire a large prosumer coffee machine just for aesthetic reasons (love at first sight), but there is not always enough space available to accommodate it on a domestic kitchen top. In addition, especially for machines with a spring lever whose rest position is with the lever upwards, there is also the height to consider. Alongside the technical space requirements, also from an aesthetic perspective a prosumer machine needs a certain amount of room in order to make it also pleasant to look at. Sometimes you see large machines protruding from tiny kitchen tops that do not give credit to the beauty of the machine.

Do you have a plumbing line that can directly supply water to the boiler of the machine? 

If you are planning to purchase a prosumer machine, having the possibility to directly connect the boiler to a water supply could be very convenient. In fact, these types of machines consume much more water than domestic ones and having "infinite" water availability is a great advantage from a practical point of view in daily use. The same should be said for the draining of the drip tray: if you have the possibility to connect it to a water drain outlet, not having to be forced to empty it daily, can be a good help in the frenzy of everyday use.

Do you want to have the possibility to change the extraction profile of each espresso?

This is a very much discussed topic. Let's say straight away that the prerogative of a personalised extraction profile belongs more to direct levers than to spring levers. On spring lever machines, in fact, it is usually only possible to decide the peak pressure during the extraction. For example, the Marzocco Leva allows to adjust the compression of the spring inside the group and consequently the force with which it pushes the piston. The Bezzera Strega, on the other hand, has two springs inside the grouphead which can deliver up to 11 bars of pressure, but by removing one of them it is possible to reduce the pressure to about 8 bars. On the contrary, on some Londinium machines it is not possible to decide the maximum pressure peak but it is possible to electronically choose (by means of a pump) at how many bars to set the pre-infusion.

On direct lever machines, however, things are very different. It is in fact the operator who, applying more or less force on the lever during the whole extraction period, decides the profiling curve. For example, you can start the extraction with a pressure of only 1-2 bars in the first 10 seconds and only then reach 9 bars at the peak moment. Playing with a direct lever with a specialty coffee for example is a real pleasure.

The ordinary and extraordinary maintenance is done at home, or do you have to rely on a service centre?

Not many people consider this point when purchasing a lever-operated machine. It's a question of budget. Boilerless lever machines for example, require very little maintenance and are usually easy to maintain without any specific technical knowledge. Open boiler machines are also very easy to maintain, even if they require a little more attention than the previous ones.

Closed boiler machines, on the other hand, require a little higher technical skills and often also some specific tools. Many users can easily do the maintenance by themselves but it must be said that it is not for everyone. Still slightly more difficult is to maintain a domestic spring lever.

Last of all, the most difficult to maintain are certainly the prosumer lever machines. even just decalcifying the boiler is not something that everyone can do. It is important when buying a machine of this type, to be aware that sooner or later you will have to carry out ordinary or extraordinary maintenance and if you are not able to do it yourself, you will have to be willing to pay the right fee to a service centre. In addition, it often happens that if you do not have a service centre in your proximity, you will need to pack the machine and ship it with the possibility of damage during both to and from shipping (besides the additional delivery costs).

Do you want a vintage machine or a modern one? 

Another very hot spot: requests for vintage-only lever espresso machines are often seen. The reasons (real or presumed) for this choice are, a better construction quality in the machines of the past and the nostalgic aspect. To mention an example, it is difficult not to remain fascinated by the style of a Faema Faemina: aesthetically very beautiful and with a not inconsiderable weight of 12 kg. In addition to these two aspects, the choice of a vintage machine often comes down to a question of cost as it is quite easy to find excellent vintage machines at attractive prices. For this type of models, however, it must be considered that it can be difficult to find spare parts.

Do you already have a coffee grinder? What is the available budget?

To extract good espressos the machine alone is not enough. The purchase of a good coffee grinder must also be taken into account, and often quality coffee grinders are also expensive. Knowing your budget is essential to understand how far you can go.

As you can see, there are many questions (and therefore variables) to consider when purchasing a lever machine and, making the choice even more difficult, many of these variables influence each other. As if that weren't enough, there are also many modifications that can be made after the purchase to solve problems with some models and that could make you re-evaluate models that you might have already discarded from the beginning. To help you in this difficult decision, however, we have produced a flowchart summarising the main variables to be considered and a lever machine representative of each category, so that everyone can be intuitively guided to a possible solution according to their needs. 

Lever espresso machines buying guide

Lever espresso machines flowchart

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