How Lever Espresso Machines Work And Are They Worth It?

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Espresso is a beloved beverage that has captivated coffee aficionados for over a century.

The journey of espresso from a simple coffee drink to an art form is a tale of innovation and passion.

At the heart of this evolution lies the advent of lever espresso machines, a breakthrough that transformed the way we experience coffee.

Introduced in the mid-20th century, these machines introduced a hands-on approach to espresso making, allowing baristas to craft each cup with precision and care.

Despite the rise of modern, automated machines, lever espresso machines have experienced a remarkable resurgence in popularity.

Today, they are celebrated not just for their ability to produce exceptional espresso but also for the tactile, engaging experience they offer to those behind the counter.

Let’s delve into the charm and mechanics of lever espresso machines, and explore why they continue to hold a special place in the hearts of coffee lovers around the world.

What is a Lever Espresso Machine?

Definition and Basic Mechanics

A lever espresso machine, at its core, is a beautifully designed apparatus that marries the art of manual coffee extraction with the science of perfect espresso.

Unlike their automatic counterparts, these machines require the barista to physically pull a lever to generate the pressure needed for espresso extraction.

This process begins with heating water to the right temperature, which is then forced through finely ground coffee to brew a rich, concentrated espresso.

The magic happens when the barista pulls the lever, engaging a piston that pushes hot water through the coffee grounds.

The pressure, which can be meticulously controlled by the barista’s hand, is what extracts the coffee oils, flavors, and essences that define a sublime shot of espresso.

The Charm and Appeal

The allure of lever espresso machines goes beyond their functional aspects.

They are a nod to the traditional, a homage to the times when making coffee was a deliberate and mindful activity.

For coffee enthusiasts and baristas alike, the lever machine offers an unparalleled level of engagement with the brewing process.

It’s not just about pushing a button and waiting for coffee to drip out; it’s about feeling the resistance of the lever, understanding the nuances of pressure and timing, and ultimately, being an integral part of the creation of each cup.

Moreover, lever espresso machines are often seen as pieces of art.

Their vintage design, often featuring polished chrome and intricate details, makes them a centerpiece in cafes and kitchens.

But beyond aesthetics, the appeal also lies in the ritualistic nature of using these machines.

There’s a certain rhythm and flow to pulling a perfect shot with a lever machine, a process that requires patience, skill, and a deep understanding of coffee.

This hands-on approach not only enhances the barista’s connection to the coffee but also elevates the overall experience for the consumer, who gets to enjoy a cup of coffee that’s been crafted with care and precision.

In a world where automation is king, the lever espresso machine stands out as a testament to the beauty of manual craftsmanship.

It reminds us that sometimes, slowing down and taking a more hands-on approach can lead to results that are not only satisfying but truly exceptional.

How Lever Espresso Machines Work

The allure of lever espresso machines isn’t just in their aesthetic or historical significance; it’s deeply rooted in the intricate dance between the barista and the machine.

This section delves into the mechanics of using a lever espresso machine and the pivotal role of the barista in crafting the perfect espresso.

The Role of the Barista in the Espresso-Making Process

The barista is much more than a coffee maker; they are artisans and scientists rolled into one.

Their understanding of the machine, the coffee, and the subtle interplay of pressure and temperature transforms the espresso-making process into an art form.

The barista’s expertise and intuition guide each step, from grinding the beans to the final pull, ensuring that every cup of espresso is a testament to their skill and passion.

Step-by-Step Guide on Pulling a Shot with a Lever Machine

Step #1: Preparing the Coffee Grounds

The journey to a perfect shot of espresso begins with the coffee grounds.

The barista selects high-quality beans, grinding them to achieve the ideal texture—fine, but not so fine as to impede water flow.

This crucial step sets the stage for extraction, influencing the espresso’s flavor, body, and aroma.

Step #2: Filling the Portafilter and Tamping

Next, the barista fills the portafilter with freshly ground coffee.

Precision is key; too little coffee and the water will pass through too quickly, too much and it will struggle to penetrate the grounds.

After filling, the barista applies pressure with a tamper, compacting the grounds evenly.

This tamping process is vital for a uniform extraction, ensuring that water flows through the coffee at the right pace, extracting flavors comprehensively.

Step #3: Pulling the Lever and the Importance of Pressure and Timing

With the portafilter locked in place, the barista then engages in the defining act of pulling the lever.

This isn’t merely a physical task; it’s where the barista’s finesse and understanding of the machine shine.

Pulling the lever initiates the water’s journey through the grounds.

The pressure—manually controlled by the barista—needs to be just right.

Too much pressure and the espresso may become bitter; too little, and it might taste under-extracted and weak.

The timing of the pull is equally crucial.

The barista must judge when to release the lever, allowing the spring (in spring piston machines) or their own strength (in direct lever machines) to push the water through the coffee.

This moment, often lasting between 25 to 30 seconds, is where the espresso’s soul is formed, drop by drop.

Types of Lever Espresso Machines

Lever espresso machines come in two main varieties, each with its unique mechanism and charm.

Let’s take a look a look at them.

Spring Piston Lever Machines

How They Work

Spring piston lever machines utilize a spring as the primary source of pressure for espresso extraction.

When the barista pulls the lever up, it compresses the spring.

Releasing the lever then engages the spring’s tension to push hot water through the coffee grounds at a consistent pressure.

This mechanism allows for a degree of automation in the pressure application, making it somewhat easier to achieve a consistent shot of espresso.

Pros and Cons


  • Consistency: The spring provides consistent pressure, which can lead to more uniform shots of espresso.
  • Ease of Use: Once the lever is pulled, the spring does the work, making it slightly easier to operate than direct lever machines, especially for beginners.


  • Maintenance: Springs can wear out over time and may require replacement or adjustment.
  • Less Control: While the spring offers consistency, it also means the barista has less direct control over the extraction process.

Direct Lever Machines

How They Work

Direct lever machines require the barista to manually apply pressure to extract the espresso.

The barista pulls the lever down, directly forcing the water through the coffee grounds.

This method demands a good feel for the right amount of pressure and timing, offering a hands-on approach to espresso extraction.

Pros and Cons


  • Total Control: Baristas have complete control over the pressure and extraction time, allowing for a highly customized shot of espresso.
  • Simplicity: With fewer moving parts than spring piston machines, direct lever machines can be more straightforward to maintain.


  • Learning Curve: Mastering the direct lever machine takes practice and skill, as the quality of the shot heavily depends on the barista’s technique.
  • Physical Effort: Pulling shots requires more physical effort, which might be a consideration in high-volume settings.

Comparison Between Spring Piston and Direct Lever Machines

While both types of lever espresso machines offer the unique experience of manual espresso extraction, the choice between them often comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of the barista or café.

Spring piston machines strike a balance between ease of use and consistency, making them a great choice for those who appreciate the manual aspect but want some level of predictability in their shots.

On the other hand, direct lever machines appeal to purists and those who seek the utmost control over every aspect of their espresso, accepting the challenge and satisfaction that comes with mastering the craft.

Advantages of Lever Espresso Machines

Lever espresso machines, with their manual operation and vintage charm, offer a unique set of advantages that distinguish them from their automatic counterparts.

Enhanced Control Over the Brewing Process

One of the most significant advantages of using a lever espresso machine is the unparalleled control it offers over the brewing process.

Unlike automatic machines, where the brewing parameters are often preset, lever machines put the barista in the driver’s seat.

This control allows for fine-tuning of every aspect of the extraction process, from the pre-infusion time and water temperature to the pressure applied during the shot pull.

Such a level of control enables the barista to experiment with different techniques and adjustments to achieve the perfect espresso shot that meets their taste or the specific demands of the coffee bean being used.

The Tactile and Engaging Experience of Making Espresso

There’s something inherently satisfying about the physical act of pulling a lever to brew espresso.

This tactile experience engages the barista in a way that pushing a button simply cannot replicate.

The act of manually pulling a shot requires attention, skill, and a connection with the machine that fosters a deeper appreciation for the craft of espresso making.

It turns the process into a ritual, where the preparation of coffee becomes a moment of focus and mindfulness, offering a sense of accomplishment with every successful extraction.

For many coffee enthusiasts and professionals, this hands-on approach not only makes the brewing process more enjoyable but also more personal.

Potential for Superior Espresso Quality with Practice

Lever espresso machines are renowned for their potential to produce superior-quality espresso.

This potential is realized through practice and mastery of the machine’s manual controls.

The ability to adjust brewing parameters on the fly allows for a level of customization and experimentation that can lead to exceptional espresso shots.

With time and experience, baristas can learn how to extract the best flavors from the coffee, achieving a balance of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness that is hard to replicate with automatic machines.

The quality of espresso from a lever machine, when used by a skilled barista, can be sublime, offering a depth of flavor and complexity that is the hallmark of artisanal coffee.

Challenges and Considerations

While lever espresso machines offer a unique and rewarding experience, they also come with their own set of challenges and considerations.

Understanding these aspects is crucial for anyone considering leaping manual espresso extraction.

The Learning Curve for New Users

One of the most significant challenges faced by new users of lever espresso machines is the steep learning curve.

Unlike automatic machines, where the brewing process is largely controlled by pre-set programs, lever machines require a hands-on approach.

Mastering the nuances of manual pressure control, understanding the impact of grind size, and learning how to consistently tamp the coffee are skills that take time and practice to develop.

For beginners, this can be daunting, and the initial attempts may result in underwhelming espresso shots.

Maintenance and Durability of Lever Machines

Lever espresso machines are built to last, often featuring robust construction and timeless designs.

However, their mechanical nature means they require regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly.

Unlike their electronic counterparts, lever machines rely on physical components like springs, pistons, and seals, which can wear out or degrade over time.

Regular cleaning, lubrication, and occasional replacement of parts are essential to maintain the machine’s performance and longevity.

Tips for Mastering the Lever Espresso Machine

Mastering a lever espresso machine is both an art and a science.

Here are a few tips to help you on your journey:

  • Start with Quality Coffee: The foundation of great espresso is high-quality, freshly roasted coffee beans. Experiment with different beans to find the flavors you enjoy the most.
  • Grind Consistency is Key: Invest in a good quality grinder and learn how to achieve the right grind size for your machine. A consistent grind is crucial for even extraction.
  • Practice Tamping: Learn to tamp with consistent pressure to ensure an even surface for the water to pass through. This helps prevent channeling and ensures a balanced extraction.
  • Monitor the Pressure: Pay close attention to the pressure you apply when pulling the lever. With practice, you’ll learn to feel when the pressure is just right.
  • Keep a Log: Consider keeping a brewing log to track your espresso shots, noting down variables such as grind size, tamp pressure, pull duration, and taste outcomes. This can be invaluable for learning and refining your technique.
  • Maintenance Routine: Develop a regular maintenance routine for your machine. Keeping it clean and well-maintained not only ensures longevity but also consistently great espresso.

Choosing the Right Lever Espresso Machine

Embarking on the journey of manual espresso extraction with a lever machine is an exciting decision.

However, selecting the right machine can be daunting given the variety available.

Here’s a guide to help you navigate through the choices, ensuring you find a lever espresso machine that not only meets your needs but also becomes a cherished part of your coffee-making ritual.

Factors to Consider

Build Quality

The build quality of a lever espresso machine is paramount.

These machines are not just kitchen appliances; they are investments in your coffee journey.

Look for machines made with high-quality materials such as stainless steel, brass, and copper, which not only ensure durability but also maintain temperature stability during extraction.

A well-built machine can last decades, making it a centerpiece of your coffee experience for years to come.

Ease of Use

While all lever machines share a manual operation principle, some are designed with features that make them easier to use, especially for beginners.

For instance, machines with pressure gauges can help you monitor the extraction pressure more accurately, while those with a heat exchange system allow you to steam milk and pull shots simultaneously without waiting for the boiler to adjust temperatures.

Consider what features are most important to you and how they align with your skill level and desire to learn.


Lever espresso machines can vary significantly in price, with factors like build quality, brand, and additional features playing a role in the cost.

Set a budget that reflects your commitment to mastering the art of espresso and consider it an investment in your coffee enjoyment.

Remember, a higher price doesn’t always equate to a better fit for your needs, so weigh the price against the machine’s features and build quality.

Recommendations for Beginners and Experienced Baristas

For beginners, a lever espresso machine that balances ease of use with the opportunity to grow is ideal.

Look for models with helpful features like a pressure gauge and a forgiving learning curve.

The Flair Espresso Maker is a great entry point.

It’s affordable, simple to use, and offers a hands-on experience without overwhelming newcomers.

Its manual operation allows for a deep understanding of pressure and extraction, laying a solid foundation for your espresso-making skills.

For experienced baristas, a machine that offers more control and the ability to fine-tune every aspect of the brewing process will be more appealing.

The La Pavoni Europiccola is an excellent choice, renowned for its build quality and the level of control it offers.

Its direct lever mechanism challenges you to perfect your technique, while its iconic design and durability make it a worthy addition to any coffee enthusiast’s collection.

Lever vs. Automatic Espresso Machines: Which is Right for You?

Choosing between a lever and an automatic espresso machine is a decision that coffee enthusiasts and café owners alike may grapple with.

Each type offers distinct experiences, benefits, and challenges.

Lever Espresso Machines


  • Control and Customization: Lever machines offer unparalleled control over the brewing process, allowing for adjustments in pressure and extraction time. This control can lead to a superior espresso shot, tailored to the exact preferences of the barista or customer.
  • Tactile Experience: The hands-on approach required by lever machines can be deeply satisfying. It connects the barista more intimately with the coffee-making process, turning each cup into a crafted experience.
  • Aesthetic Appeal: Lever machines often feature classic, elegant designs that can enhance the ambiance of a home or café. They serve not just as appliances, but as conversation pieces that evoke a sense of nostalgia and craftsmanship.


  • Learning Curve: Mastering a lever machine takes time, patience, and practice. The manual control means there’s more room for error, which can be daunting for beginners.
  • Physical Effort: Pulling a shot requires physical force, which might not be ideal for everyone, especially in high-volume settings where efficiency and speed are crucial.
  • Maintenance: While durable, lever machines can require more maintenance and an understanding of their mechanics to keep them in top condition.

Automatic Espresso Machines


  • Convenience and Consistency: Automatic machines are designed for ease of use, often featuring programmable settings that ensure each shot of espresso is consistent with the last. This can be particularly advantageous in busy cafés where speed and consistency are key.
  • Ease of Use: With less manual intervention required, automatic machines are more accessible to beginners and those who prioritize convenience in their coffee-making process.
  • Advanced Features: Many automatic machines come equipped with features like built-in grinders, milk frothers, and customizable brewing profiles, enhancing the versatility and convenience of the coffee-making experience.


  • Less Control: The automation that makes these machines convenient also means baristas have less ability to influence the brewing process, which can limit the customization of the espresso shot.
  • Depersonalization: The push-button nature of automatic machines can remove the barista from the intimate experience of crafting a shot, potentially making the process feel less personal and artisanal.
  • Cost: High-end automatic espresso machines can be expensive, not just in initial investment but also in maintenance and repair costs, given their complex electronic components.

Which is Right for You?

For Coffee Enthusiasts and Home Baristas

If you relish the ritual of making coffee and seek a deeper connection with the process, a lever espresso machine might be your ideal choice.

It offers a more hands-on, artisanal approach to coffee making, suited for those who enjoy the craft and are willing to invest time in learning.

For Busy Cafés and Practical Home Users

If efficiency, consistency, and ease of use are your priorities, an automatic espresso machine could be the better option.

It’s well-suited for environments where speed is of the essence or for individuals who prefer the convenience of pressing a button to enjoy a quality espresso shot.


Lever espresso machines challenge us to engage deeply with the process of coffee making, rewarding patience, and skill with unparalleled control over every shot.

While the learning curve and maintenance requirements present their challenges, the potential for crafting exceptional espresso makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

For those drawn to the ritual of coffee making, a lever espresso machine offers a connection to the craft that is both profound and personal.

It invites us to slow down, to savor the process as much as the product, and to celebrate the art of espresso in every cup.

As you consider your path in the coffee world, let the love of espresso guide you.

Here’s to the journey, the learning, and the delicious rewards that await!


How does a lever coffee machine work?

A lever coffee machine works by manual force applied by the user to pull a lever, which in turn applies pressure to hot water, forcing it through finely ground coffee to extract espresso.

The process involves pre-heating water in a boiler, filling a portafilter with ground coffee, and then manually pulling the lever to initiate the extraction.

The pressure can be controlled by the force and duration of the pull, allowing for a customizable espresso shot.

Why are lever espresso machines better?

They offer unparalleled control over the extraction process, allowing users to adjust the pressure in real time for a customized espresso shot.

This manual control can lead to higher quality and more flavorful espresso, as it enables fine-tuning of the extraction to suit the specific coffee bean or personal taste preferences.

Additionally, the tactile experience and the ritual of manually pulling a shot add a layer of enjoyment and craftsmanship to the coffee-making process.

Are lever espresso machines worth it?

For coffee enthusiasts who appreciate the art of espresso making and enjoy being hands-on, the investment in a lever machine can be incredibly rewarding.

It offers the chance to craft espresso shots with precision and personal touch, potentially leading to superior taste and satisfaction.

However, for those prioritizing convenience and speed, the learning curve and manual effort required might not align with their preferences.

How long should a lever espresso shot take?

The ideal extraction time for a lever espresso shot typically ranges between 25 to 30 seconds, starting from the moment the lever is engaged to when the espresso finishes dripping into the cup.

However, this can vary depending on factors such as the grind size, the amount of coffee used, and the desired strength of the espresso.

Are lever espresso machines hard to use?

Lever espresso machines can be challenging to use at first, primarily due to the manual control and skill required to pull a consistent shot.

Unlike automatic machines, lever machines demand a good understanding of espresso extraction principles, including grind size, tamping pressure, and the nuances of manual pressure control.

However, with practice, using a lever espresso machine becomes an intuitive and highly rewarding process.

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Jacob Harris

Jacob is a coffee enthusiast who turned his passion into a career. As the owner and editor of Karma Coffee Cafe, he shares his extensive knowledge and recommendations, captivating fellow coffee lovers.

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