Espresso uniquely uses pressure during brewing. While all espresso machines generate pressure, there are a few different ways that they can do so.
Lever espresso machines and pump espresso machines use different methods to generate pressure.
We’ll explain the differences so that you can decide which kind of espresso maker will be best for you.
In This Guide:
- What Are Lever Espresso Machines?
- How Lever Espresso Makers Work
- Pros of Lever Espresso Machines
- Cons of Lever Espresso Machines
- What Are Pump Espresso Machines?
- How Pump Espresso Machines Work
- Pros of Pump Espresso Machines
- Cons of Pump Espresso Machines
- Are Lever Espresso Machines or Pump Espresso Machines Better?
What Are Lever Espresso Machines?
The defining component of lever espresso machines is their lever, which is how the pressure necessary for brewing espresso is generated.
These machines were first invented by Milanese cafe owner Achille Gaggia, who improved upon a previous design by adding a spring-piston lever that the barista operated. This had the dual benefit of eliminating the need for enormous boilers, and increasing water pressure from 1-2 bars to 8-10 bars (the range that pressure espresso shots are pulled at today). The Gaggia company is, of course, still making home and commercial espresso machines today.
Today’s espresso machines may have a spring lever (more common) or manual lever (less common). Newer manufacturing processes and designs have also given rise to seesaws, screws and other alternatives to a lever.
How Lever Espresso Makers Work
- Water is heated in a boiler so that steam is generated.
- The barista pulls the lever up, creating a vacuum that draws water into the brew cylinder.
- The barista pushes the lever down, forcing the brew cylinder’s piston down to create pressure.
- With a spring lever machine, the lever triggers a spring that applies force to the piston.
- With a manual lever machine, the barista uses strength to apply force to the piston.
- The piston’s downward movement forces water through the group head.
- Grounds in the brew basket restrict flow, thus creating pressure as water is forced through.
- Espresso is brewed and enjoyed.
The boiler pressure is usually 1-2 bars, which is suitable for steaming milk if a steam wand is included on the machine.
Machines that use alternatives to levers work with the same principle. For example, the Rossa Portaspresso slowly forces water down by pushing a screw through the brew cylinder to create pressure.
Pros of Lever Espresso Machines
High-Quality Espresso Makers
Making an espresso machine that relies solely on Newtonian mechanics keeps manufacturing costs low, since no complex components are required. The most complex pieces are likely the on/off switch and heating element.
Because their manufacturing costs are lower, lever espresso machines present some of the best value of any espresso makers. The quality of a lever espresso machine often rivals that of pump machines that are priced much more expensively.
Why Are Lever Espresso Machines So Expensive?
Despite their lower manufacturing costs and great value, lever espresso machines aren’t cheap. You can expect to spend around $200 for an entry-level model that’s decent, like the Rok EspressoGC which is around $230.
High-end lever espresso machines can go for the price of an older used car, like the Olympia Cremina SL which is around $4,000.
These machines aren’t expensive because of their manufacturing costs, but rather for a few other reasons:
- Lever espresso machines are a niche market, and niche markets often have higher entry-level prices
- Lever espresso enthusiasts tend to be more experienced, and most aren’t looking for a cheap machine that’s merely adequate
- Lever espresso machines last a long time, so manufacturers can’t rely on sales of replacement parts or machines
If you’re looking for a more affordable lever espresso machine, consider any used model. Since these machines often last for a long time (see below), even an older used model can still function well — and often still make better espresso than comparably priced pump machines.
Long-Lasting Espresso Makers
Because they have simple mechanical components and few electronics, lever espresso machines last a long time. It’s not unusual to have a model that’s years or decades old and still works well.
When something does wear out, repair or replacement is easy. Most lever models can be disassembled easily with only basic mechanical knowledge. All components are easy to replace because nothing is too technical.
The most common service that’s needed is a seal/gasket replacement, as seals will eventually wear out. This is a simple service on virtually all lever models, and so too are almost any other repairs that might be needed.
No espresso machines afford the same level of control as lever espresso machines do. Namely, manual lever machines let you pressure profile in addition to controlling the grind, dose, temperature and other variables. Spring levers don’t offer the same pressure profiling, as the spring determines the pressure generated.
Pressure profiling allows you to experiment with yet another variable that affects extraction.
Cons of Lever Espresso Machines
Most Involved Espresso Machine
Pulling a lever is the most involved way to brew espresso. These machines are entirely hands-on, even when actually pulling shots, and thus are the least convenient to use.
Lever espresso machines aren’t going to make you a quick latte before work, or a “quick” anything else.
Lever espresso machines, and especially manual lever machines, require practice before you can consistently pull good shots. Even the most knowledgeable baristas will still experience a learning curve as they become accustomed to a specific machine’s lever.
What Are Pump Espresso Machines?
Pump espresso machines were an improvement upon Gaggia’s lever-style machine. In 1961, Ernesto Valente installed a motorized pump that created consistent pressure, equal to what baristas were generating by pulling machines’ levers.
The pump innovation had particular application in commercial settings. Baristas could make beverages faster, and pressure would be more consistent regardless of who was pulling shots. Of course, many home baristas likewise appreciate these improvements.
How Pump Espresso Machines Work
Pump espresso machines have more advanced heating mechanisms, which provide temperature consistency and high pressure. The internals work as follows:
- A thermo-block keeps the machine’s water from becoming too hot.
- Water is passed over a heating element that rapidly generates steam.
- The generated steam provides sufficient pressure for pulling shots.
Actually using these machines is like using any standard espresso maker. Prepare your shot, press the button to pull, and enjoy. Machines can be semi-automatic, automatic or super-automatic. Naturally, many machines also have a steam wand.
Pros of Pump Espresso Machines
Automating pressure generation ensures pressure is consistent across all shots. While pressure profiling can be fun to experiment with, generating consistent pressure with a manual lever requires extensive practice. A pump machine provides the same pressure shot after shot, so extraction won’t change on account of unintentional variances in pressure.
Additionally, some high-end automatic pump machines still let you program different pressure settings if you do want to pressure profile.
Convenient Espresso Makers
All pump espresso machines are easier and more convenient to use than lever machines are, and you can choose varying levels of convenience. Pump machines are available as:
- Semi-automatic models that allow you to grind, dose, tamp and control water volume, but the machine provides pump-generated pressure.
- Automatic models that allow you to grind, dose and tamp, but the machine controls water pressure and volume.
- Super-automatic models that take care of everything, requiring you only to select your preferred drink and press the brew button.
Cons of Pump Espresso Machines
Durability and Longevity
Since pump espresso machines have more complex components, they’re inherently not as durable. Many well-made machines that will last for years are available. You won’t see a pump machine passed down from generation to generation for a half-century, though. They’ll wear out, and repairing them eventually becomes expensive compared to the cost of a new machine.
Price for New Machines
Pump espresso machines will cost more than comparable lever espresso machines, simply because pump machines have more manufacturing costs. Automatic and super-automatic machines can become particularly expensive.
Additionally, purchasing a used pump espresso machine can be riskier since these machines don’t always have decades-long durability.
Are Lever Espresso Machines or Pump Espresso Machines Better?
Whether you should get a lever espresso machine or a pump espresso machine depends on what you want in an espresso shot. If you’d like a hands-on experience that lets you control every aspect, go with a lever machine. If you appreciate consistency and convenience more, a pump machine will serve you well.
Still not sure? Take a look at our guide on what to look for when purchasing an espresso machine.
We also have buying guides with recommendations to fit your budget:
- Best Espresso Machines Under $200
- Best Espresso Machines Under $500
- Best Espresso Machines Under $1000
Scott M. Brodie has over 20 years of professional experience working in coffee shops and writing about coffee (including selling superautomatic machines). When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work.