If you are an espresso lover, you will have tasted a superbly pulled shot at some point in your life. That perfect blend of bitterness, acidity, and sweetness. The intense aroma, the golden shot topped with thick crema, the smooth, velvety body. There are few greater pleasures in life.
If you are an espresso lover on the quest to craft that perfect shot, a manual espresso machine may be the solution you are looking for. Manual espresso machines allow you to explore the world of espresso and experiment with different brewing parameters. While they tend to be very unforgiving, they are also the most rewarding. As my husband loves to say- the lows are lower, but the highs are higher.
So what is a manual or lever espresso machine? Who are they for? And what are the best manual espresso machines available in 2021? These are a few of the questions we will seek to cover in this review.
What is a Manual (Lever) Espresso Machine?
There are three main types of espresso machines:
Among manual espresso machines, you can either get electric or non-electric machines. The electric machines have a boiler to heat the water and also a steam wand. The non-electric require the user to boil water separately themselves to preheat the machine and pull the shot.
Types of Manual Espresso Machines
There are two main types of manual espresso machines: Spring Piston vs. Direct Lever.
Spring Piston machines have a calibrated spring in the group head that pushes the water through your grounds for you. To cock or compress the spring, you pull down the lever. Once it is released, the spring slowly comes back up, forcing water through the grounds as it does so. Spring Piston machines are more convenient to use, offering a semblance of repeatability and consistent pressure from shot to shot.
Direct lever machines use a lever to apply pressure to the water as it extracts espresso. The user has total control over the pressure applied. Direct Lever machines are the favored type among espresso enthusiasts as they allow complete control over pressure, speed and volume extracted. However, they require a lot of work and practice to master, and it can often be challenging to replicate good shots.
Who Should Buy A Manual Espresso Machine?
So you may be wondering, with all the advanced technology around, why would anyone want to go back to brewing espresso manually? They are fiddly and time-consuming to use. Despite this, hobbyist baristas love the idea of mastering the art of espresso. Manual espresso machines offer complete control over the taste of their espresso, and a good technique can culminate in some pretty tasty shots. This does come, however, at the cost of convenience. Manual espresso machines require a steep learning curve, and it can be difficult to produce consistent results. Despite this, there is something gratifying about handcrafting a perfect shot of espresso- the satisfaction is real people! So if you are an espresso enthusiast and love the process of brewing coffee and tinkering with different aspects of brewing, a manual espresso machine may be for you!
What To Look For In A Manual Espresso Machine
We have compiled a list of a few things to consider before deciding which machine to opt for.
Type Of Machine
As mentioned above, when it comes to manual espresso machines, you can either get a spring-piston or manual lever one. Spring Piston machines are easier to operate and deliver more consistent results. However, they are also more expensive. Manual Lever machines allow the barista more control over brewing; however, they are difficult to master. Manual lever machines tend to be cheaper given the simpler design.
Some machines, with boilers and steam wands, require electricity to use them. Others can operate without electricity (so long as you have a supply of hot water).
Consider the build quality of the machine. In general machines made with chrome or brass tend to be extremely durable.
Temperature regulation tends to be the Achilles heel of manual espresso machines. To produce espresso, ideally, the water needs to be at a temperature of 195 to 205F. Manual espresso machines offer less precise temperature control, and particularly the non-electric ones tend to struggle with temperature loss.
Consider how many shots you are intending on pulling a day. Some manual espresso machines are designed as single-serve machines, so not ideal for a family. In contrast, others have a large boiler to cater to multiple people.
Best Manual Espresso Machine of 2021
Here are our picks for the best manual espresso machines. We have listed them in order of price.
The Flair Classic is the original machine in the Flair espresso line-up. Costing around $159, it offers one of the most affordable entry points into espresso. The Flair Classic has a unique design, consisting of a base, a lever, and a brewing chamber. It is hand-powered and operates without electricity. Brewing with a Flair Classic is quite different from your traditional machine and can seem strange at first, but once you get the hang of it, you can pull a shot in 3 minutes. It has a few quirks; you have to preheat the brewing chamber before use, and disassemble and clean the brewing chamber and piston after each use. The Flair Classic is designed for single-serve brewing, and it yields around 45mls per shot, slightly less than a double shot.
Despite these quirks, the Flair Classic is an excellent choice. It is well built and comes with a 5-year warranty on the stand and brewing head. A wide range of accessories such as a bottomless portafilter, drip tray,, or pressure gauge are available to upgrade your machine. And most importantly, it produces excellent quality espresso. See our full review here.
The ROK GC is another entry-level manual espresso maker that retails for around $200. It looks beautiful and has a simple design with excellent build quality (including a ten-year warranty). When it comes to brewing, the ROK is simple to use but hard to master. It struggles with temperature stability and requires you to preheat both the water reservoir and portafilter before use. It also doesn’t have the option of a pressure gauge, making it hard to know how much pressure to apply. The espresso produced is sub-par compared to the other machines on this list. Despite this, we would still recommend the ROK CG for someone just starting out with manual brewing. It doesn’t have any fancy features or programs; it just does what it is designed to do: brew a simple shot of espresso. See our full review here.
The Cafelat Robot is another contender for a spot in the espresso lovers’ coffee kit. It has a combination of beautiful aesthetics and functionality. The Robot has two levers instead of one, making it easier to press down. The workflow of the Robot is fairly straightforward to get your head around. The portafilter doubles as a brew chamber which means it has good thermal management, so you can get away without preheating the different parts if you are using traditional dark roasts. There are two models available; the Basic and the Barista, with the main difference between the two being that the Barista model has a pressure gauge. The Cafelat Robot has a high-quality build with no plastic in the design.
The Robot is a bit of a jump in price from the Flair Classic, from $400 to $450, depending on which model. However, its design means it is quick and easy to brew with and can produce some delicious espresso shots. See our full review here.
For the espresso lover, Flair Espresso has recently released their latest model- the Flair 58. This stunning machine is aimed at the hobbyist barista, and at around $529, it is priced at a premium. The main feature that differentiates it from the rest of the Flair line-up is an electronic temperature control system. This preheats the brewing chamber, so you don’t have to. While the traditionalists will balk at an electronic heating system, it is useful in guaranteeing thermal control and speeding up the workflow. The temperature system only heats the brewing head (not the water) and has three different levels. It can be kept at 85C/185F on low, 90C/194F on medium, and 95C/203F high.
Asides from this, the Flair 58 uses a professional grade 58mm portafilter with a sweet wooden handle. The frame has a more robust build, and the lever is a lot easier to use. The Flair 58 delivers exceptional quality espresso and just looks incredible.
La Pavoni Europiccola
The La Pavoni Europiccola is one of the most iconic lever espresso machines. It has a beautiful, classic design and is built to stand the test of time. Unlike the manual espresso machines above, the Europiccola is a full-blown espresso machine with a steam wand and all. It retails at around $900. The La Pavoni Europiccola has a 0.8L boiler capable of producing up to 8 cups of espresso. It also comes fitted with a steam wand so you can crank out those cappuccinos. The steam wand is not amazing compared to other espresso machines, but it does the job.
It is a direct lever machine, so it does take some practice learning when and how much pressure you need to apply. The Europiccola also doesn’t come with a pressure gauge, but you can buy a kit to add to your machine to make life easier. The Europiccola has a few quirks when it comes to using it, but if you can master it, you will find a friend for life, and it can produce some mighty fine espresso! If you take care of it, this machine will last for decades. See our full review here.
Elektra Microcasa Lever Espresso Machine
Coming in on top is the Elektra Microcasa Lever Espresso Machine. This beauty costs a pretty penny, retailing around $1700; it is for the dedicated espresso lover. The Elektra is a stunning work of art, built with brass and chrome, a mirror finish, wooden handles, and an eagle topped dome. While it looks like a classic manual espresso machine, it is fitted with modern conveniences like a pressure gauge and safety valve.
It is a spring-piston machine making it more forgiving than other manual espresso machines. It can produce a consistently decent shot of espresso if the temperature is well controlled. The Elektra has a large capacity with a 61 oz. boiler and is capable of producing up to 18 shots of espresso before you need to refill. It is also fitted with a steaming wand that can produce some excellent textured milk. The Elektra is a masterpiece with a tried and tested design that has been refined over many years.
To summarise, a manual espresso machine really should be the end goal for the espresso enthusiast. These beautiful machines allow you to customize everything to craft the perfect espresso shot. As you can see, there is a range of options available from entry-level to expert level. The Flair Classic is an excellent stepping stone at a very affordable price if you are just starting out. If espresso is your jam, the La Pavoni Europiccola is a superb manual espresso machine that will last for decades.
Things To Consider Before Buying A Manual Espresso Machine
How Difficult Are They To Use?
As we mentioned above, manual espresso machines have a reputation for being challenging to use. They are not for the beginner, but rather for the enthusiast who already has wrapped their head around the different elements required to pull a good shot.
Are They Portable?
There are now a variety of different portable manual espresso machines available. They are lightweight, can be taken apart easily, and some even come with carrying cases. Bear in mind that all the machines require some way to boil water to preheat the machine and pull your shot.
Will They Last?
Manual espresso machines also have a reputation for being extremely durable. It is not uncommon to see a decade-old La Pavoni on eBay still working well. If you select a machine with a simple design, fewer things can go wrong with it.