Owning an Olympia Cremina is to have a true relationship with your espresso machine. Cultivating love for her requires time, but Cremina will reward you with a lifelong relationship if you get to know her well. My own relationship continues to evolve.
In This Guide:
- The Benefits of Lever Espresso Machines
- How Does the Cremina Compare With Other Lever Machines?
- How to Pull Espresso With Olympia Cremina
- Upgrades for the Olympia Cremina Espresso Machine
- How to Maintain the Olympia Cremina
A True Lever Espresso Machine
Olympia Cremina — and no owner would consider her just a “machine” — is a lever espresso maker akin to when espresso was originally pulled by hand.
Espresso was invented during the first half of the 20th Century (depending how you define it), and baristas used arm strength to actually generate the pressure needed. They would pull down on a lever to create pressure, which would then push hot water through a puck to create shots.
Cremina continues to work in this way, using technology from the 1960s (when the first models were built) to create excellent shots. Pull up on her lever to prepare the brewing water, and pull down to brew the espresso. There’s also a steam wand if you’d like to add milk.
The Benefits of Lever Espresso Machines
Lever espresso machines allow for complete control over brewing, even more so than today’s manual machines. The use of an actual lever allows you to not only control grind size, tamp, water pressure, etc. — but you can also control the pressure profile because you create the pressure.
The ability to profile pressure allows for a whole new array of outcomes, and it allows you to adjust what espresso is all about. Espresso’s uniqueness largely comes from the inclusion of pressure when brewing.
How Does the Cremina Compare With Other Lever Machines?
Among traditional lever espresso machines, Olympia Cremina has instant and lasting appeal. A few traits set her apart from both spring-loaded machines and traditional La Pavoni models.
Traditional Lever vs. Spring-Loaded Lever
Olympia is one of only two companies (the other being La Pavoni) that makes this type of traditional lever espresso machine. These are distinct from spring-loaded machines, of which there are many more (including Cremina’s sister, the Olympia Cremina SL).
Spring-lever machines still have a lever, but pulling the lever activates the spring. It’s the spring that actually creates the pressure and not your force, thereby eliminating the ability to actually profile pressure. While many users appreciate spring- lever machines (hence their greater prevalence), I prefer the non-spring levers where the pressure is generated by me.
Olympia Cremina vs. La Pavoni Europiccola
The most direct competition to Cremina comes from La Pavoni, whose models can be generally represented by the Europiccola. The first version of Cremina was in fact a rebranded La Pavoni, but Olympia quickly changed to their improved design in 1967. Some parts of Cremina are seven still sourced from La Pavoni.
Despite having an early history and some parts in common with La Pavoni, the Cremina stands out from its competition in multiple ways. The La Pavoni Europiccola can be used as a representative model for comparison:
Shot Quality: Cremina has an insulated boiler and a large group head, both of which maintain temperature stability. Once the water is up to temperature and the group head is warmed (see below), she can pull multiple shots without a problem. I’ve pulled upwards of eight at a time.
The Europiccola has a bare boiler that’s not insulated and a group head with less metal. This design results in the boiler’s temperature decreasing as more shots are pulled, and the group head doesn’t act as a heat sink as well.
You won’t have nearly as much temperature control with the Europiccola, and therefore can’t consistently pull shots of the same quality.
Burn Safety: Cremina’s insulated boiler is housed by a metal box that serves as the machine’s front and sides (and thankfully comes in mute brown in addition to the bright red and orange). The boiler gets hot but results in no burns when touched. I’ve even been in contact for a few moments with no more than some discomfort.
The Europicoola’s bare boiler presents much more of a safety hazard. The bare boiler isn’t protected by any housing, and touching a metal surface that’s holding hotter-than-boiling water (thanks to the pressure) will almost surely result in burns.
Safety is a concern for everyone, but it’s a particular concern for families with children.
Build Quality: Cremina is built by the Swiss, and it lives up to the “Swiss made.” Models from the ‘60s and ‘70s are still in use, and my 1983 continues to function perfectly. You’ll have to provide some routine maintenance, but there won’t be any major issues bearing damage.
The Europiccola isn’t built nearly as well and frequently needs care. Along with routine maintenance, be prepared to make other repairs as parts break down.
(Other La Pavoni models come with more features, but the fundamentals remain unchanged across their lever machines.)
How to Pull Espresso With Olympia Cremina
Because every aspect of pulling espresso is user-dependent, not even the best baristas will pull anything close to good shots at first. With time and practice, though, you’ll be able to pull some of the best shots you’ve had. It took me a few weeks to get decent shots, and a few months to get great ones.
The key to pulling great shots with Cremina lies in adjusting for her idiosyncrasies. To create wonderful espresso:
- Heat: Heat the machine and let off false pressure by opening the steam wand for a short time (see user manual).
- Warm Group Head: Half-pump the lever up and down about eight times. This cycles water through the group head, warming it without having water exit.
- Prepare Espresso: Prepare your espresso grounds as normal in the portafilter.
- Steam Milk: Steam milk first if you’re making a cappuccino, latte, mocha, etc. Like most personal espresso machines, Cremina can’t simultaneously steam and pull. Steamed milk will degrade slower than espresso, so the milk should be prepared first.
- Load Portafilter: Place the portafilter in the group head (which takes some practice to get used to).
- Prepare Lever: Slowly pull the lever up to prepare for the shot. The lever is creating a vacuum chamber that water fills. You just don’t want to pull upward so fast that air also flows through the puck to fill the vacuum. Any upward air flow would disturb the puck and lead to channeling.
- Preinfuse: Push the lever down slowly until you feel some resistance, and then pull it back up. This will preinfuse the grounds. Alternatively, I’ve had success holding the lever ~â…“ up for 15 to 25 seconds.
- Pull Shot: Press the lever firmly down to pull the shot. Getting a feel for the machine through trial and error is the easiest way to get a feel for how hard you should press down.
Upgrades for the Olympia Cremina Espresso Machine
Olympia Cremina is the creme de la creme of lever espresso machines, and a skilled hand can pull shots that rival (or exceed) modern machines. Even with all of her greatness, however, a few accessories can make consistently pulling good shots easier. In my personal order of preference, those aftermarket additions are:
Higher Quality Tamper: Cremina comes with an original tamper that’s light, flimsy and made of plastic. Upgrading to a better tamper improves feel when pressing down, and makes evenly tamping grounds a little easier.
Bottomless Portafilter: Cremina’s portafilters are small both in width (49 mm) and depth (varies). The result is a shot volume that’s more akin to espresso’s original size, which is significantly less than the double shots that cafes normally serve today. There’s no way to increase the width of the portafilter to the more standard 58 mm, but you can get a bottomless portafilter that can be used with a deeper basket. An aftermarket basket that holds 17-18 grams will allow for fuller shots.
Pressure Gauge: A few industrious aficionados have created a pressure gauge that can be affixed to Cremina. This allows for much more precise pressure profiling, as Cremina doesn’t herself have one. After installing a gauge, some owners are surprised to learn that they’ve been profiling incorrectly for years.
Temperature Strip: Cremina’s group head can be sufficiently warmed by half-pumping the lever until the group head’s metal feels hot. A temperature strip can be stuck onto the group head if a more accurate reading is desired. The additional accuracy here has minimal impact, and whether it’s worth the decreased aesthetic is a personal decision. (I don’t have a temperatures strip on my Cremina.)
How to Maintain the Olympia Cremina
Olympia Cremina has few parts that will break down unless there’s actual damage caused to them. She does require a little periodic tender loving care, however.
Descaling the Olympia Cremina
Cremina should be descaled occasionally — and this is generally good to do regardless of how often you use her. Frequent use with hard water will lead to mineral buildup that eventually diminishes use.
If she’s left unused, those deposits can block essential pressure releases and create a potentially unsafe situation. Deposits that form in the pathway to and nozzle of the steam wand can make it impossible to manually relieve pressure through the wand (e.g. when calibrating). Deposits at the bottom of the sight glass can cut off the pressure release valve, which is at the top of the sight glass and automatically releases pressure.
A commercial coffee descaler will descale the machine, and vinegar can be used (although this might cause minor additional wear).
Replacing Seals on the Olympia Cremina
The sales on the Olympia Cremina are the one part that does break down and must be replaced periodically. Expect to replace these when you purchase an older machine and occasionally thereafter.
When replacing seals, it’s also advisable to clean and lubricate everything. I used a combination of commercial coffee descaler and Joe Glo to clean and descale everything, and my Cremina had major deposits in both the steam wand and the sight glass. For a lubricant, I found a food-safe silicone grease that’s commonly used in plumbing.
New seals can be purchased from either Olympia or Orphan Espresso. Olympia’s seals are technically OEM, but where the seals are sourced from and whether they’re perfect is a topic of debate among users. Orphan Espresso has developed a good aftermarket set that many people choose, both because they tend to cost less and be well-designed.
Orphan Espresso has an excellent tutorial series on YouTube that covers disassembling Cremina, replacing her seals and reassembling her, as well as some troubleshooting issues.
Asbestos in the Olympia Cremina
Olympia Cremina models made before 1983 were built with asbestos around the boiler, the asbestos being used as an insulator. Models after 1983 use a different insulator, and those built during 1983 may or may not have asbestos depending on when the boiler itself was manufactured. My own 1983 model had asbestos.
Whether asbestos on an older model should be removed is another topic of debate among owners. Some choose to leave it, some remove it, and a few remove it and use something else for insulation. There’s no single alternative for insulation, but several solutions (e.g. high-temperature and food-safe foam) have been adapted.
Downside of the Olympia Cremina
As with everything, Olympia Cremina isn’t perfect although she is wonderful. Her main downside is price — many models sell for more than inexpensive used cars.
Be prepared to put down upward of $3,700 for a new Cremina, and most used ones are selling for $1,500 to $2,500 at the time of writing. Some recent models in mint condition fetch over $3,000 on the used market.
Most people who purchase a Cremina buy a used one, and any used model dating back to 1967 should work well if it’s in decent condition. The only major difference among the years is the asbestos change in 1983.
If you decide to purchase a used Cremina, models regularly are for sale on eBay and you might find one on Craigslist. Wherever you locate one, be prepared to purchase quickly as Creminas usually don’t stay available for long. When I found one on Craigslist, I immediately drove 3 hours one way to get it before another person who was coming the next day.
Olympia Cremina Will Serve You Well
Owning an Olympia Cremina is a major investment of both money, and time as you learn. If you make the investment, she’ll reward you with wonderful espresso for years and decades. Even your grandchildren will likely still be able to enjoy her espresso.
Scott M. Brodie covers coffee, theology and boring subjects that pay the bills. When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work. To see one of Scott’s personal projects, check out seminariesandbiblecolleges.com.