Fads will come and go, but piston espresso machines that use a lever to force heated water over the grounds will remain a timeless classic.
For many purists they are the espresso machine to own as they give the most control over the brewing process. They also provide a nice ‘hands-on’ experience which is much more satisfying than pushing a button to get a shot.
Oh, and they also look completely badass.
It is a fairly niche market and there is a large array of machines out there at a number of different price points. Should you buy one? Do they really have any benefits over automatic machines? What different options are available? And most importantly, what are the best lever espresso machines out there?
At the Coffee Bazaar HQ we decided it was time to put all hands to the pump and dip our toes in the exciting world of the manual coffee machine. To read about how the machines work and why they are something of a gold-standard for baristas, keep reading. To check out our top five machines click here.
What is the deal with piston espresso machines?
Espresso is made by forcing water hot water across ground coffee at around 9 bars of pressure. This pressure is achieved by using some sort of pump. The standard home-espresso machine use electric motor driven pumps to do this. But this was not always the case.
At the turn of the century, espresso machines used steam pressure to brew coffee. In 1945, Achille Gaggia, founder of the Gaggia coffee range, launched a piston machine. This allowed espresso to be brewed at higher pressures than before – which was useful for extracting those essential oils for lovely short, intense coffees with a nice foamy crema.
In spite of the fact this process can now be done at the push of a button, some coffee connoisseurs prefer using a manual machine because it allows them to control the extraction time and pressure they use to get their shot.
By playing around with the pressure and extraction time (it is said a perfect shot should take around 25-30 seconds to extract) users can hone their pulling power to perfection for each different blend as they go in search of the fabled god-shot.
Most automatic espresso machines do not allow any control over pre-infusion. This is the amount of time that water is in contact with the grounds before it is pulled through the puck of coffee in the portafilter basket. Pre-infusion is important to wet the grounds uniformly, as espresso machines that do not pre-infuse sufficiently can promote something called ‘channelling’
this is where water finds the path of least resistance – or a channel – through the coffee in the filter basket. The result is that coffee in the channel is over extracted and coffee outside it is under extracted – the espresso is inferior and will taste bitter or sour.
Is a piston machine for you?
If you want an espresso machine then you should really at least consider it. They offer a very satisfying experience – although they can be tricky to master so that you repeatedly churn out top-notch espresso.
They can also require a fair amount of force to operate – in some cases up to 10kg of pulling force – so will not be for everyone.
The lever machines tend to last a lifetime and come with very long guarantees. This is largely due to the fact they have fewer moving electrical parts and tend to only be manufactured by very serious and long-standing coffee companies.
Usually they are made of metal and wood instead of plastic – so unlike your standard mid-range coffee pod machine, it is not unreasonable to expect to be able to pass these machines onto your children and grandchildren.
What should I look for in a manual lever operated espresso machine?Electric Vs Non Electric Coffee Pump Machines
Non electric pump machines are growing in number and popularity. They require you to add preheated water to the machine before operating a level to pull that through the coffee grounds.
They are obviously much cheaper than their electric cousins and offer no milk frothing ability either. On the upside they are easier to carry around with you if you want to take your machine on the road – some even come with carry cases.Spring Piston Vs Direct lever
The other major dichotomy for manual machines is between spring piston and direct lever machines. Spring piston machines are easy to spot as they tend to have their levers pointing upwards when not in use. To pull an espresso on a spring variant the lever is pulled down to cock a spring, which self releases during the extraction process. To add more water and elongate the pull, simply re-cock or part re-cock the spring during the brewing process.
Because the lever is operated via the energy stored in a coil, the pressure during the pour is always highest at the start of the pouring process and lower at the end. The springs set the maximum pressure – usually at around nine bar.
Direct lever piston espresso machines meanwhile require the operator to force the water through the coffee with manual pressure. This gives you the chance to alter the pressure at different stages of the brew process – something which is known as pressure profiling.
Baristas are increasingly experimenting with this concept to see what it does to different grinds and roasts, with interesting results.
If you are not a pro coffee maker, expect a fair bit of trail and error as you dial in your espressos so you can create perfect replicable shots.
In short, the spring piston gives you less control but is easier to use, while the direct lever gives you more control but is trickier to operate.
The best piston espresso machines
This handsome stainless steel machine weighs in at 5kg and comes with a 0.8 litre water tank, a milk steaming wand and a plastic tamper. There are also two portafilters for a single and double shot.
Oddly enough, the portafilter on this machine tightens to the left – this is not problematic, but slightly counter-intuitive when you first use it. It is a direct lever machine – so gives you complete control over the process.
You push the handle up to fill the group-head with water and then pull it down to extract the coffee. There is a lot of room to play with here as varying grind type, pressure and time you can obtain very different results.
The milk steamer has been a bugbear for many users of this machine as it cannot effectively produce the microbubbles many discerning users are after.
To our mind it still makes decent foam, however, hardcore Pavoni fans online have got around the issue by changing the tip of the foaming wand from one with three holes into a single hole variant. You can pick up these up online for cheap.
The plastic tamper is also bit rubbish, given the quality of the rest of the machine. We would have liked something a bit more heavy-duty and it feels a bit like La Pavoni are skimping here.
If you feel the need to upgrade afterwards – we like this calibrated tamper – that lets you know when you have applied the right amount of force to get a solid tamp.
These are minor gripes. It is a stunning machine that is infinitely fun to play with. After dialling our espressos in for a bit we were getting good shot after good shot. 4.5/5Check price at Amazon »
This non-electric machine has no bells and whistles and comes is a wonderful little portable box with a really helpful brewing guide.
Once you open the case there are five pieces you need to assemble and a mini-toolkit and instructions to help you put the little Meccano set together. This is not a challenge, even we at the TCB HQ managed and we all struggle with Ikea furniture.
Once assembled, fill a portafilter basket which attaches to the base of the stainless steel water chamber and place it in the stand. The machine comes with a heavy-duty steel tamper for compressing your grounds…
Add some hot water from the kettle. Put the plunger in the top of the water chamber and pull the lever to extract coffee.
This is more than capable of hitting or exceeding 9 bars of pressure, god bless the physics of levers. A pressure gauge is not included as standard, these can be purchased separately but are not widely available outside the US.
This is fairly annoying as you have to go by feel. It produces espresso comparable to that made in a much more expensive machine – but there is, of course, a trade-off.
And that trade off is that making coffee is something of a performance. The water needs to be heated separately, the water chamber needs to be preheated and the portafilter is small and fiddly to empty, fill and clean. The machine also drips after use and does not have a very tidy looking drip-tray. 4/5Check price at Amazon »
This ornate-looking machine is hand made in Treviso, Italy. It is a beautiful item. The first thing you notice is that it is tall – over 55 centimetres in height. This is pushing it for standard counter-top to cabinet space.
Obviously, a machine like this is really part sculpture – but its size will limit possible placement locations within your kitchen. The machine has a brass boiler that holds around 1.8 litres of water, a steam wand as well as water and pressure gauges.
You also get a double and single portafilter as well as a horrible plastic tamper and spoon. Why the quality of such a machine’s fabrication cannot be matched in the accessories is beyond us – but anyway….
This is a spring piston machine so easier to operate than the direct lever Pavoni Europiccola above.
It is easy to use, fun and very very pretty. It also makes great coffee. The biggest gripe was the time it took to heat the water – well over 20 mins for a full tank from a standing start! 4/5Check price at Amazon »
This machine is much like the Europiccola but it’s design comes is based on the curves of a violin. It gives it a slightly more modern look, but in terms of functionality the two are the same.
The basic model comes with a 0.8 litre water tank, frothing wand, double filter basket and cheap plastic tamper. Apart from that, the differences are only skin deep. The addition of a pressure gauge to the 0.8 litre model or a change to the ineffective three holed frothing wand would have been good.
The closeness of the frothing wand and angle of it to the body of the machine also makes getting a jug under there tricky so we are going to score this slightly lower than the Europiccola. 4/5Check price at Amazon »
The Rok espresso maker is less fiddly to use than the Flair above and this usability is its chief asset.
The machine features a plastic water chamber on top which is pre-filled over a fairly standard looking portafilter basket below. To pour the coffee the corkscrew-like lever arms are raised to pre-infuse the grounds and lowered to push it through.
This is an all manual process and having two arms makes it less of a workout to pull the shot – it does, however, mean more space is needed each side of the machine every time you want to brew. It has a nice drip tray so looks untidy after use than the Flair.
However, users have reported durability issues with the plastic water chamber which can crack under the pressure of repeatedly pulling shots. Especially when using superfine grounds and going in hard. Over time this has led to some complaints about its longevity.
The machine comes with a 10-year warranty for its metal parts only so a new chamber may be needed in time.
The machine comes with an attractive tin for transportation but is slightly heavier than the ROK at ( 3.5kgs to 2.7 Kgs) meaning you are even less likely to find space for it in your hand luggage. 3.5/5Check price at Amazon »