Using a lever machine

June 2nd, 2009

These last few days have been a pleasant, but steep learning curve.  I know I’ve muttered about pressure profiling from time to time, but I hadn’t really played with a lever machine properly until Gwilym’s WBC prize arrived.  1
I am not quite at the popeye arms stage yet, but I could see how you could incorporate a machine like this into a serious workout routine.  I have had some delicious shots, but I have had to abandon the traditional time frames I have used for espressos I know well.

Lots of little things make an impact.  The size of basket has a very strange impact – keep the dose the same, but have a bigger basket means that more water fills the chamber above the coffee meaning you will pull a longer shot.  Changing basket but keeping the dose the same has enough of a weird impact using my Cyncra, but this one single variable has a terrifying domino effect on the shot!

Gwilym came by today, he’s on his way to Italy to visit La Marzocco and wanted to pick up some coffee to play with.  We thought it would be fun to pull some shots of the same batch on the Athena that he’ll play with out there.  The impact of even tiny adjustments to pre-infusion time made an astonishing difference to the cup.

As you can see from the photo above I dug out my Gaggia naked portafilter, as I was curious to see what effect the lack of dispersion screw would have.  (This is the first machine I’ve used without one).  Turns out it is nothing noticeable, but then I am not sure how much detail can really, really be discerned from a naked portafilter.  They do still look pretty though.

Shot times appear to have gone out of the window.  Or at least the window has moved quite substantially.  People who go to Naples often seem to come back remarking on the 45 second shot time.  I haven’t had much under 35s that I’ve really liked, though I haven’t played much yet with barely any infusion so that may change things.  2

Now I’ve never been one to worship at the altar of crema, I don’t want more of the stuff, I don’t read too much into its texture or its colour.  However from an aesthetic point of view the shots from the Athena do look remarkable pretty.  Darker espresso roasts than ours mottle/tiger stripe in a wondrous manner (had some very tasty shots of Espresso Rustico from Counter Culture which I wished I had photographed because I think they’d be an interesting reference point for barista competition judging).

I can’t quite put my finger on exactly how the shots change.  I also admit that I’ve had more experience than most with pressure profiling, and the impact of soaks and ramps.  I do know that you can get some very interesting textural and taste based results (I am separating taste from flavour here), but I also know what a knife edge it can be.  I’d love to pull a few hundreds shots on one of these and see how you build a workflow around them, would it lull you into a pleasant and soothing rhythm or taunt you with its crawling pace.  Plus if you pull a choker then there isn’t much you can do except be patient.  3

I consider myself very lucky that Gwilym has kindly let us play with it.  If you are coming to roastery any time soon then I’ll probably try and force a shot or two onto you and talk in an overexcited way.  I am aware this post comes off the back of a post about how silly espresso is, and how we should all love brewed coffee, but from a personal point of view it is rare that I get the opportunity to go through a learning experience like this one.

I’ll try and post more about it all as I learn a bit more and have something solid and interesting to say.  If you have experience with lever machines then I’d love to know your thoughts.  If I have one gripe with the machine (and this is exceptionally churlish, considering I am borrowing a friend’s prize) it is that the cup tray is really quite tiny.  Petty?  Me?  No….

  1. Yes, we kindly offered to ‘look after’ it for him for now…  ↩︎
  2. For the record I would start the time the moment the lever is sufficiently pulled down that you can hear the water entering the brew chamber.  Other than that it is noticeable how eerily quiet the whole process is.  ↩︎
  3. I have been told a couple of methods to interupt the brew, but frankly they either scare me or increase the likelihood of me making a mess of my clothes and I just can’t condone those things.  ↩︎

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