How Does a Lever Espresso Machine Work?

Lever espresso machines allow you to literally “pull” shots, just as baristas did during the early- and mid-1900s. No other way of making espresso is more hands-on.

A manual machine is not for everyone. If you just want convenience, a different kind of espresso maker would be better. But if you want to get hands-on with your espresso making, if you want to learn and enjoy the nuances, a lever machine may be right for you. We’ll explain what a lever espresso machine is, the two distinct types – manual lever and spring, as well as suggest some specific models to take a look at.

What is a Lever Espresso Machine?

All lever espresso machines have the barista generate what pressure is used for brewing espresso. Pressure has traditionally been generated by literally pulling a lever (hence “pulling” shots of espresso), but some modern designs accomplish the same through pushing, turning or other motions.

The pulling action is what makes this the most hands-on way of brewing espresso, for you’re manually doing every step. Manual lever espresso machines also allow for pressure profiling espresso shots.

How Do You Pull Shots With a Lever Espresso Machine?

The process of pulling shots with a lever machine is straightforward, and doesn’t differ much from other types of machines aside from the pulling step:

  1. Prep (grind, dose, temp) the espresso as normal.
  2. Load the basket and portafilter as normal.
  3. Pull the lever to actually brew the espresso shot.
  4. Steam and add dairy if desired.
  5. Serve and enjoy.

Each step is completed manually. Automatically prepping espresso or steaming milk doesn’t make much sense when the central step of pulling espresso is so hands-on.

Spring Lever vs. Manual Lever Espresso Machines

When pulling espresso shots, these machines generate the requisite pressure in either of two ways. Spring lever machines have baristas indirectly generate pressure, while manual lever machines have baristas directly generate pressure.

How Does a Spring Lever Espresso Machine Work?

Spring lever espresso machines have a spring within them, and pulling a lever activates this spring. It’s the spring that actually provides the force necessary to generate enough pressure for pulling espresso shots.

The lever triggers an internal spring, and the spring provides sufficient force to move a piston. As the piston compresses water, pressure builds and espresso brews. Returning the lever to its original position resets the spring for another shot.

The barista’s relationship to pressure is only indirect with spring lever machines, as the intermediary spring is what actually generates the pressure. It’s thus not possible to pressure profile with this type of lever machine. Some baristas also feel they’re still a little removed from the actual pulling espresso experience.

Using a spring has the benefit of ensuring pressure is always consistent, however. Every shot has the same amount of pressure, which removes the steep learning curve that these machines can have. It also makes perfecting other variables (e.g. grind, dose, tamp, etc.) easier because the pressure variable doesn’t change.

Pros of Spring Lever Espresso Machines

  • No learning curve for generating pressure
  • Consistent pressure across all shots
  • Manual experience of pulling a lever

Cons of Spring Lever Espresso Machines

  • Less hands-on when actually pulling
  • Not able to pressure profile shots

Some examples of spring lever espresso machines include:

How Does a Manual Lever Espresso Machine Work?

Manual lever espresso machines have no spring, but instead have mechanics that directly connect the lever to the pressure-generating piston.

As the lever of a manual lever espresso machine is raised, the piston creates a negative pressure that draws water into the piston’s chamber. The piston compresses the water as the lever is pushed down, thus creating pressure and forcing the water through the espresso grounds.

Because pulling proper espresso requires ~8 bars of pressure, substantial force must be applied when pulling the lever down. The lever provides leverage that helps generate sufficient pressure, or another mechanical design (e.g. seesaw or screw) helps.

In this setup, the barista directly controls how much pressure is applied as each shot is pulled. Consistently applying the same pressure requires practice, and is more doable on some machines than others. Once you’re practiced on a well-designed machine, however, it’s possible to pressure profile each shot.

Whether pressure profiling with a home espresso machine actually results in better espresso depends on how precisely other factors can be controlled. You’ll likely only see consistent results from pressure profiling if the grind, dose, water temperature and time are each already properly calibrated. Even if these aren’t perfectly calibrated, though, pressure profiling can still be fun to experiment with.

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La Pavoni EPC-8 Europiccola 8-Cup Lever Style Espresso Machine, Chrome
  • Ideal for making coffee specialty drinks at home
  • Sturdy all-steel construction under heavy chrome plating
  • Comes with tamper, screen, screen holder, measuring ladle, and cappuccino attachment
  • Also includes instructional video for getting started
  • Measures 11 by 7 by 12 inches; 1-year warranty

Pros of Manual Lever Espresso Machines

  • Actually “pull” espresso shots
  • Entirely hands-on experience
  • Able to pressure profile individual shots

Cons of Manual Lever Espresso Machines

  • Generating proper pressure requires an extensive learning curve
  • Pulling shots requires your full attention throughout the brewing process
  • Less consistent pressure is possible even after extensive practice

Traditional manual lever espresso machines have an actual lever to pull, but more modern designs use a seesaw, screw or other mechanism.

Some traditional models are:

Some models with other designs are the Uniterra Nomad (seesaw), Portapresso Rossa (screw) and Forge (push).

Is a Lever Espresso Machine Right for Me?

In contrast to today’s modern espresso machines that prioritize tech and/or convenience, lever espresso machines hearken back to a simpler time when pulling espresso was truly an art. If you want a fully hands-on experience, a lever espresso machine may indeed be the type of machine you’re looking for.

Which Type of Lever Espresso Machine Should I Get?

Both spring lever and manual lever espresso machines will provide a unique shot-pulling experience. Choose a manual lever machine if you want to control (or mess up) every aspect of pulling shots. Go with a spring lever machine if you want the feel of “pulling” espresso, and consistently good shots without practicing your technique.

In either case, lever espresso machines are a joy to own and use if you spend time with them. Get one for your home coffee bar, and you’ll pull many enjoyable shots with it.