The soothing dance of the levers

by Gwilym Davies

Photo taken by Grant Sheehan of Gwilym Davies working on a WMF pump machine with a La Pavoni Lilliput 55 next to it at the Atomic Café

Photo taken by Grant Sheehan of Gwilym Davies working on a WMF pump machine with a La Pavoni Lilliput 55 next to it at the Atomic Café

Though I will always argue that a lever machine makes a tastier espresso than a regular pump machine, taste is not the only thing that makes something memorable and not the only reason I prefer lever machines. The interaction that taste, technical and the emotional involvement have on my enjoyment of lever machines makes my experience complex and it is unfair to narrow it down to one or two memorable occasions. It is a love affair with many highlights but is a long relationship that strengthens with time. To try and explain this better I will share with you part of my journey with lever espresso machines.

I first encountered a lever machine while working at Atomic Café on Ponsonby Road, Auckland New Zealand back in 1997-98 when it was owned by Chris Priestley, it was my first coffee job and I loved it. We would make the shots on a regular electric pump machine but steam milk on a gorgeous curvy La Pavoni two group lever machine that sat next to it by the entrance to the café. This seems a weird system and waste of bar space but when hearing the tales of carpal tunnel and near misses from the levers at Chris’s previous café Kerouac’s I understood better, I also understood that when you are used to having such a lovely machine on bar it is easy to justify a use for it. I was content to only use the steam wand and enjoy looking at the beautiful old Pavoni on bar in a busy café. My memorable experience with this machine spanned one year and I happily admit it was based on romance rather than taste or practicality.

Ten years later I was invited to pull my first lever shot by Dale Harris, then a young puppy barista who in a further ten years would win the 2017 World Barista Championship. I was at an impersonal trade show that was typical in London at the time, I was initially excited by the exhibition full of coffee related activity but my enthusiasm was quickly beaten down by all the "do not touch”, “no I will not tell you about the coffee we are using” and the general lack of interest in me being a barista rather than a large company executive. I retreated to a small stand with a Victoria Arduino Athena lever and watched the soothing dance of the levers extracting coffee. Dale saw my enthusiasm for the lever machine and, finding out I was a Barista, invited me behind the machine to help him serve the crowds. He took the milk and I got to pull shots under his instructions. I was hooked. I cannot remember the taste of the coffee, what I remember about this experience is the feeling of flow that happens when working the handles of a lever machine, you must be efficient but there is a limit to your speed, though this does not cause impatience or stress, rather the opposite. The frantic trade show seemed so far away with the silent gentle movement of the pistons and levers seemingly calming the crowd around us that were happy to find somewhere they could interact with baristas. In a search for speed and ever faster systems we should not forget that the time is relative to a situation and not compromise the friendliness and warm humanity that I have seen happen around a lever machine.

The next time I touched a lever machine I ended up being its owner. In 2009 I decided to try my hand at barista competitions and three months later I had unintentionally won the World Barista Championship in Atlanta, the upside of this traumatic experience was winning the same model of lever machine I fell in love with working alongside Dale. Cosimo Libardo from Victoria Arduino kindly offered to replace it with a top-of-the-line electric pump machine so I could make use of it on the coffee cart I worked but I could not turn down the chance to finally own a beautiful lever machine. Many years later over wine he told me that he was impressed I followed my curiosity and kept the lever machine despite all the sensible advice around me reminding me that the second hand Linea on the coffee cart was nearing its retirement date.

I had nowhere to put the machine, I was living on a canal boat on London’s waterways with little space, no mooring and only the electricity I made myself. Luckily an inquisitive James Hoffmann was happy to let me store it at the Square Mile Roastery which was my second home at that time. James quickly worked out how the lever machine was different to the regular pump machines we had learnt all about espresso on and filled me in on the details: the grind was much finer, the pressure and temperature reduced during extraction, and it was so much quieter! We made some nice coffee while the lever machine was at the roastery, the espresso seemed more balanced but making a couple of coffees is different from using the machine in a commercial setting.

A regular customer of our coffee cart heard about the lever machine and asked if we wanted to put it inside a new clothes shop he was opening, I was ready to get out of the cold and work somewhere with a toilet so this gave me a great chance to try out the lever machine properly. Present in Shoreditch High Street, East London was my happy place for the next two years but the first four and a half days were not easy. The machine was installed the night before the shop opened and I tried to dial it in the morning we opened but could not make espresso I was happy to sell. I had 12 years of experience as a barista and was the current World Barista Champion but could not consistently make a good coffee on the machine I dreamed of owning.

It was 2009 and at the time we started being more number focused when trying to understand espresso, we were used to weighing dose and yield with filter coffee so it was natural to transfer that to espresso, it was also necessary when we were using the VST refractometer that Home Barista Vince Fedele developed (arguably the biggest single development in modern espresso).

For the first 4 days I measured everything: dose, yield, pre-infusion time, time of extraction, TDS. I gave every coffee away for 4 days and was getting more and more frustrated and measuring more and more variables. On the morning of the 5th day Anette Moldvaer co-owner of Square Mile Coffee popped in to say hello and solved the issue with one gently worded sentence, “Gwilym stop thinking about it and just make nice coffee”. I have always enjoyed and admired Anette’s roasting and tasting ability but her reminder that the emotional as well as technical makes good coffee has been the biggest lesson I learnt from her. Anette knew me well, I was a self-taught, instinctive barista that operated on emotion as much as all the reading I did. It is important to collect data to try to understand our craft and create tangible theory so that it can be passed on, but we must also listen to the instincts and gut reactions that have been built up with experience, those things you know but cannot explain.

Everything I knew about espresso had been based on my experience using and reading on electric pump espresso machines that emerged at the start of the 1960s with Faema’s TRR and E61. The lever machine was so different, we had always searched for stability of temperature and pressure but with the lever machine the beauty was in their lack of stability, with a falling temperature / pressure during the main extraction. The differences however do not end there; instead of a continuous supply of water from a rotating pump that gets sprayed over the coffee puck, the lever machine has a limited amount of water sitting directly above the coffee puck, like an Aeropress with a solid column of water sitting on top of the coffee. I relaxed and just started to try and make good coffee, the first tasty shot had an extraction time of one minute which reminded me how my thoughts on espresso were limited by the machines I had been using. The lever machine broke my concepts, and I rebuilt my knowledge from the pieces, always with the thought of what Cosimo whispered in my ear while awarding me my World Barista Champion prize, “It is all about flow”.

The technical side of lever machines is the memory I took from this time, there was no one to teach me so the process of learning how to use it, it was trial an error, I really was starting from zero. Two pieces of useful advice I did receive came from customers: to use a larger filter basket than I would normally so I could leave a larger headspace above the coffee and to use a small spoon to stop the flow of espresso so to remove the cup cleanly. I also did get some wonderful help from Kees Van Der Westen in the form of a “Plopper” which is a hard plastic puck that is placed in the filter basket to aid removing and replacing the shower screen. Before this we would have to use two small spoons to remove it and use the old trick of sugar granules to replace it.

Granulated sugar trick to remove the showerscreen on an espresso machine

Granulated sugar trick

Taste was a big part of the success we had at Present clothes shop; at the time most progressive cafes had a recipe around a 1:1.66, we sacrificed balance for texture and seemingly got used to the scratchy acidity. The lever machine however handled this ratio with much more balance, making us realise there was hope for espresso rather than feeling the brew method was fundamentally flawed compared to our darling pourovers. It would take a couple more years before we realised adding an extra few grams of liquid to the yield would improve the balance of espresso dramatically!

The recipe we settled on in Present was as follow:

  • 18 grams in a 20 grams basket
  • 8 - 10 seconds lever down for pre-infusion
  • Gently raise and release the lever 
  • 34 - 36 grams beverage weight 
  • Total time 36 - 45 seconds

The line pressure was set for 3 – 3.5 bar with a pressure reducer to bring it down to this level. Any lower and the pressure was not enough to push through the fine grind, anymore and the pre-infusion was too fast. We rarely flushed the group before pulling a shot, wiping the screen with a cloth to remove any coffee residue. It initially started because we were on water bottles so were conscious to not waste water and it also makes a big mess that needs to be wiped dry. Strangely the coffee was tasting better for longer service periods, though it does not work in many situations it worked for our coffee and workflow. The taste balance of our espresso would decline into bitterness if the groupheads got too hot and were not allowing the water to reduce in temperature during the shot, by not flushing we slowed down the heat build-up in the groupheads. We thought we would have a problem with the initial water coming into the group and onto the fresh coffee for pre-infusion would be too hot, but our coffee seemed to enjoy the initial hot water that then reduced in temperature. 

Before inserting the portafilter we would bring the lever down a little bit, this is to reduce the suction by the piston that dislodges the dry puck as the lever is pulled down. We also made sure everyone kept a hand on the lowered lever for safety reasons, I am still thankful that barista Jessie Faye only got a slight mark on her nose rather than a lever full in the face. Version two of the original Gaggia lever machine had a safety device to ensure the lever could not spring back I am sure many people would have had kept the original shape of their face if that wonderful feature was standard on all lever machines.

The Athena lever machine is still being used in East London at Lanark Coffee, but I managed to get a new one recently with the double spring piston that looks like the VBM replica lever. It sits in the training centre hidden among more modern technology and is rarely used, coming out to play when a student shows interest in it, or I get the opportunity to widen a barista's vision of what they think espresso can be. I spend more time in the Roastery these days so on the moments I get to use it for myself, taste is my main aim, it truly does make the best espresso of all the machines in the training centre, and I have a strategy to help increase my hit rate of a memorable moment. When using the lever machine with students I get to use various coffees and try different techniques to alter flow and pre-infusion. When we find a particularly tasty coffee, I take a note of the recipe, technique and grind setting then freeze 40 grams portions as beans. This means I know the coffee will be tasty and saves me from wasting coffee calibrating the grinder and adjusting the recipe. I am essentially freezing my memorable coffees and reliving them when I want.

My current favourite is a batch of frozen Colombia Natural from Luis Jose Valdes, Finca Cristalina in Caldas. I really enjoy this coffee, it is a filter roast that works well in the lever machine, which is always useful, I am from the old school specialty crew that kickstarted the third wave with clean single origin washed coffee’s but unlike many who are reluctant to accept all but the cleanest of naturals I am really enjoying the alternative to what I feel becomes a boringly repetitive experience from nothing but washed coffee for so many years. This Natural from Finca Cristalina has a gentle red wine acidity in a V60 that is intensified in an espresso but deliciously balanced by a berry sweetness. The rich chocolate in a filter becomes more praline like with the alcohol becoming pronounced but not overbearing. As a 5 ounces cappuccino (150 ml) the wine becomes cooked red apples, and the praline softens towards caramel notes.

My lever machine technique is the same as was developed at Present and uses a dose of 18 grams in a 22 grams VST basket, and a beverage weight of 34 grams, double, but I drink it as a single. 

I roasted it as a 9.7 kg batch (my regular batch size is 10 kg, but this was the end of the last bag). I had to go into first crack at a lower Rate of Rise (ROR) speed than I normally do otherwise my ROR bounces everywhere with this coffee and the coffee tastes roasty. It was roasted six months ago and I have changed my technique since so it is interesting to compare the roast to my current technique which has a much lower charge temperature, no soak before hitting the gas and now have a longer Development Time Ratio closer to 20% simply because I can control my roasts better than six months ago.

My history with the lever machine is long and has many memorable occasions, it has given me a broader understanding of espresso and extraction and given me plenty of tasty shots. As much as I want to keep pushing forwards with coffee and how it is extracted, I keep returning to the lever machine, it has a big part in my coffee memories and whenever I get to talk about levers they give me a warm feeling inside and a smile.

Roasting graph of the Colombia Natural from Luis Jose Valdes, Finca Cristalina in Caldas roasted by Gwilym Davies for The Naughty Dog

Roasting graph of the Colombia Natural from Luis Jose Valdes, Finca Cristalina in Caldas