How Does A Manual / Lever Espresso Machine Work?

As you can see from this picture, there are some absolutely gorgeous manual home espresso machines available!

If you are here, you have likely been wondering exactly how a manual espresso machine works.

Keep in mind that before you can even consider to begin using one of them correctly and getting good results, you most likely will require some basic info. on how to use one.

The information on this page has been provided solely as an instructional guide — no links to anything to buy, we promise!

Manual home espresso machines (more commonly called “lever” espresso machines) not only look gorgeous, they also produce absolutely optimal espresso shots when compared to any other espresso maker you can find, including today’s super-automatics and semi-automatics.

Read on below for some helpful information regarding what many call the very best espresso machines available.

 

How Does A Manual / Lever Espresso Machine Work?

In a nutshell, the actual parts of one of these machines are really quite simple when it comes to the machine itself.

Comparing a manual espresso machine to one of today’s super-automatics, or even semi-automatics for that matter, is about the same as comparing a Model A Ford “back in the day” to most of today’s automobiles, which have many bells and whistles.

Because lever espresso makers have many less components that can, for whatever reason, just “stop working,” you can pretty much count on a lever espresso maker lasting much longer than a more automated one.

One main component on semi-auto and super-auto espresso machines that tends to quit working is the water pump. A manual espresso machine, on the other hand, has no “pump” per se (other than your hand/arm, which pumps the water into the portafilter, where it runs through the ground coffee and is extracted into the waiting espresso cup below).

The main components of a lever espresso machine basically include the four things listed below.

  • A water reservoir where fresh water is poured, which is then heated inside the water reservoir.
  • Heating element – There is normally a heating element contained within the water reservoir, which heats the water.
  • Portafilter into which you pour the coffee grounds.(If you are unsure what we mean by a portafilter, this page has some very helpful information about that.)
  • A large lever on the outside of the machine that is brought down by the user of the machine after the water has been heated and the coffee grounds have been added to the machine and tamped (compressed). Bringing the lever down results in the water being forced into and through the grounds, which causes espresso to be extracted and dispensed into a cup waiting below a spout.
  • Pressure gauge monitors how much PSI (pounds per square inch) of pressure are in the boiler. Not all manual espresso machines have a pressure gauge, so this component is not an absolutely necessary one.

 

Why Do People Find Them So Difficult To Use?

Manual Espresso MachineThese machines, in and of themselves, are not difficult to use. There are very few operational components that come with these machines, as well as very few things that need to be learned when it comes to the actual operation of one of these machines.

The primary two reasons people find these machines difficult to use when first starting out are:

  • Learning the correct grind coarseness – One of the main reasons people usually find these machines so difficult to use, at least at first, is due to the grind of the coffee being too coarse (not ground enough) or too fine (ground too much). This does take some experimentation, and some coffee will be wasted in the learning process. A good coffee bean grinder that has numerous settings for different grinds will most definitely help with learning this step.
  • Learning how to correctly tamp (compress) the ground coffee – Tamp the grounds too tightly and no espresso can be extracted. Tamp them not enough and the espresso is extracted too quickly, resulting in weak espresso that has no “crema” on top.

Both of the above skills also need to be learned with semi-automatic espresso makers, although because semi-autos are more automated than lever espresso machines, they do not require as much of a learning curve.

To break down the subject of the correct grind of coffee even more, keep in mind that even different coffees will bring different results when it comes to grinding and grind coarseness.

  • Not grinding the coffee finely enough will result in the espresso being dispensed too quickly and pouring into the cup too fast, with not very much “crema” on top.
  • On the other hand, grinding the coffee too finely will result in the water not being able to go through the grounds, and thus, NO espresso.
  • The best tip we can offer you, regarding the correct grind, is the good old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” with a different setting on a good grinder.
  • Trying several different grind settings with your chosen coffee bean, while keeping in mind the above information, should result in your getting the hang of it with not too many attempts.

Although most people find it very difficult to learn these couple of skills, those who finally do figure them out do feel that it was worth the extra effort they put into it. These incredible pieces of what we truly consider beautiful art are capable of making the very, very best espresso that can be made…period…enough said!

You will, however, at first learn very quickly how finicky and persnickety these contraptions can actually be, again mainly due to not having the coffee grounds “just so.”

If you are considering buying a lever espresso maker and have never made espresso before, just know that learning to use one of these gadgets and getting that amazing result you are likely looking for can seem to be a big ball of frustration and disappointment, at least the first few times you attempt to use one.

In summary, just know that it is completely possible to learn how to use them, if you have a little patience and are willing to waste a few batches of coffee grounds in the learning process.

 

What Is Your Personality? Is a Manual Lever Espresso Machine Something For You To Consider?

  • If you are the type of person who likes to fiddle with and learn how to use something that brings with it a completely new concept that you have never encountered before, and you would absolutely love to make the best espresso that can be made, a lever espresso maker could be just the thing for you. Manual machines have the capability of producing the ultimate espresso, of much better quality than ANY, even the most high-priced, semi-auto or super-auto machine can. If you are an espresso fanatic who truly wants to be able to make the ultimate espresso at home, and you also have some patience for learning how to use one, then you likely should give one of these manual machines a whirl!
  • On the other hand, however, if you are someone who definitely just wants brewed espresso with no bother, fuss, or muss, and virtually no need to acquire the needed skills that goes with one of these machines, such as learning about the correct grind of coffee needed or the correct tamp (compression) of the ground coffee, you definitely would be better off getting a super-automatic, or at least semi-automatic home espresso machine.

Once you have learned the few needed steps, you will take this knowledge with you always, kind of like riding a bicycle.

On the other hand, keep in mind that even when you have learned the needed skills and have been able to successfully brew espresso with one of these machines with a particular type of coffee, you may find that making a change to a different coffee from the coffee you are currently using, or perhaps trying out a new grinder, will require you to again learn the correct grind and tamp for that particular coffee.

 

How the lever on manual espresso machines works

The sole purpose of the lever on manual espresso machines is to push the hot water down towards and through the ground coffee into the waiting cup below.

The large lever on the outside and the front of the espresso machine, when pulled up, creates a vacuum effect, literally sucking the already heated water into the portafilter, where it runs through the tamped grounds, after which the extracted espresso is dispensed into a waiting cup below.

 

There Are Two Different Classifications of Manual Espresso Machines…

These two different classifications include spring piston lever machines (also referred to sometimes as spring-assisted lever machines) and direct lever machines.

These machines are somewhat identical, with the primary difference between the two involving the group head of each. One has a spring inside the group head, and one does not.  Thus, the group head on direct lever manual machines is much smaller, about half the size, than the group head on the spring piston lever ones, due to not needing extra room for the spring that is contained in spring piston lever machines.

Spring Piston Lever Machine – easier to learn to use, and somewhat easier to use than a direct lever machine – this type of manual espresso maker has inside its group head a spring that provides needed pressure for pushing the water to and then through the grounds in the portafilter (the portafilter is the small metal container that holds the ground coffee). After the water is pushed by the spring down to the grounds in the portafilter, the water runs through the grounds, resulting in extraction of  the brewed espresso down through the dispensing spout into a waiting cup below the spout.

Direct Lever Machinethis type of manual espresso machine basically requires you to do all of the pumping of the water through the coffee grounds yourself, rather than having a spring to assist you in this task. With a direct lever machine, you are providing the force needed to push the water through the ground coffee with the strength of your arm/hand. There is not a lot of strength required to complete this, but there is more required than if you use one that has a spring-assisted device in it.

Although both of these machines are very simple as far as components involved, a direct lever machine is even more simple mechanically than a spring piston one. However, because you are doing more of the actual work yourself, getting consistent results will be more difficult to master than they will be with a spring piston machine.

 

Pros and Cons of Each Type of Manual Espresso Machine

Pros of a spring piston lever machine:
  • Machines with spring piston levers do not require as much skill to be learned, although there is still a learning curve involved with using them. However, they are easier to learn to use than direct lever piston machines. If you are considering using your first manual/lever espresso machine, a spring piston lever one would definitely be the way to go.
  • More consistent pressure is achieved with spring piston lever machines. As well as being easier to use and perhaps not requiring quite as much training, you will find that spring piston lever machines do provide more consistent results in your brewed espresso than a direct lever machine. This is because the spring in the machine will be able to provide more consistency regarding pressure applied than you can with an arm, as is the case with direct lever machines.
  • Higher bar-pump pressure than a direct lever machine. Machines with a spring piston lever are normally calibrated to approximately 9 bars of pump pressure, which is equal to the standard pump pressure needed to produce great espresso.

Cons of a spring piston lever machine:

  • More costly than direct lever machines. You will find that some spring piston lever machines can cost almost double the price of direct lever machines.
  • Very little ability to adjust the speed of the shots, and less control over the espresso end product. Because spring lever machines, although still very manual, are more automated than direct lever machines, you do have less control over the compensation allowed for different grind coarseness, and the machine will be more of a part in determining how your espresso ends up than that of a direct lever machine.
Pros of a direct lever machine:
  • Much less costly – you will likely find, when researching direct lever vs. spring piston lever machines, that the machines with spring piston levers can run you close to double the price of a direct lever machine.
  • More control of the brewing process and end result – with a direct lever machine, you completely control the amount of pressure put on the lever. This total control cannot be achieved with a machine that has a spring-assisted device.
Cons of a direct lever machine:
  • Much more difficult to learn, although definitely “learnable.” For a first manual espresso machine user, a spring-assisted machine would be a better choice than a direct lever machine.

 

Water Tank (Reservoir) Info. Regarding These Machines

The water tank (where you pour the water in) for manual machines is normally toward the back of the machine and is usually accessed from the top by lifting up a lid on the top.

Water reservoirs for the most popular manual espresso machines usually hold either 20 ounces or 38 ounces of water.

A water reservoir on a manual espresso machine that is only 20 ounces will only allow you to pull maybe two or three shots of espresso, after which you will need to wait for the machine to cool down somewhat, additional water will need to be added, and then heated.

 

Filed under: Espresso Machine and Barista Basics Articles