Few ways of brewing coffee allow you to feel as close to your morning joe as brewing espresso with a manual machine.
These machines are not for the faint-hearted, and especially not for beginners, but there is no better way to explore the world of espresso than to pull shots manually from a lever espresso machine.
Here are our picks for the best manual and lever espresso machines in 2020.
A manual espresso machine, also called a lever espresso machine, is quite different from the more commonly used semi or fully automatic machines.
However, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it can’t produce espresso that’s just as good (or even better).
Good espresso is a result of several factors. Primary, these include ground size, amount of coffee, tamping pressure, brewing water temperature, and pressure of extraction.
With the semi-automatic espresso machines, you have the option to program many of these features.
But with a manual machine, you now have control over everything.
Two Different Types
There are two different types of manual espresso machines: spring piston lever machines and direct lever machines.
Spring Piston Machines—You can usually tell if a machine uses a spring piston because the lever will be in the upright position when it’s resting.
Pushing the lever down “cocks” the spring mechanism. Releasing the lever handle releases the pressure of the spring, which in turn forces the water through the portafilter and over the coffee grounds.
While the spring does some of the actual physical work for you, this is still very much a manual machine, as you have control over pre-infusion, how much water you want to flow over the grounds, and when to pull the shot.
Direct Lever Machines— You’ll recognize a direct lever machine by the lower position of the lever when it’s resting.
Like its name implies, you apply direct pressure on the lever which is what puts pressure on the water as it extracts your espresso. It takes a lot of work (and even more practice) to successfully master this machine.
A manual machine takes espresso making one giant set up: your potential to mess up a shot is infinitely higher, but if you get it right, it’s likely to be the best shot you’ve ever had.
Manual espresso machines are not immediately intuitive or easy to operate.
Even if you’re a skilled barista, your first few shots from a lever machine are likely going to disappoint you.
There’s a steep learning curve involved since you are now in control of one of the most important factors of coffee extraction: the pressure.
With a direct lever machine, you not only have to learn how much pressure to use to pull a good shot, but also learn to vary that pressure for different coffees and roasts.
A spring piston machine is a little different in this regard, but you still have an enormous amount of control over the other factors. That can be fun if you’re ready to experiment, or daunting if you are fearful of the number of bad shots you’ll have to pull before finding a good one.
Be aware that manual machines are unforgiving to bad grinds, old coffee beans, and uneven temperatures. If you're not willing to use fresh whole bean coffee and a high-quality coffee grinder, you won't be pulling too many good shots of espresso.
Watch this longer video to learn more about how a direct lever espresso machine works.
It might sound silly to be investing in a manual espresso machine when there are all kinds of other espresso machines on the market that have more options for control and still require enough technique for the truly dedicated to feel like they have earned their shot.
While that is true, there are plenty of reasons to consider a manual machine if you are serious about your coffee.
For one, because you literally control the amount of pressure that goes into pulling a shot of espresso, there is a huge amount of variation and experimentation possible.
That makes it an excellent option for anyone wanting to explore different tastes and methods.
Most people who invest in a manual espresso machine find something beautiful and artistic about being able to physically pull an espresso shot out of a machine.
If that sounds like you, a manual machine might be a good addition to your coffee collection.
Another great benefit of manual machines is that they are built to last. In fact, you would likely be able to find a number of vintage lever machines readily available online in perfect working condition.
This is good for you as a consumer for two reasons: one, your investment will last for a long time. And two, even if you need to buy replacement parts or spend money on occasional upkeep, you will be spending considerably less money in the long run.
Water Tank—make sure that the water tank is capable of pulling more than one or two shots before it needs to be refilled. The most popular tanks sizes are 20 or 38 ounces of water.
Materials—Brass is the highest quality material used to build espresso machines as it wards off both corrosion and bacteria. The next best is stainless steel, followed by aluminum.
Type of Machine—Think about whether a direct lever or spring piston machine is right for you.
The spring piston machine is easier to learn and delivers a higher, more consistent pressure but can be expensive and doesn’t give you as much control to adjust.
Direct lever machines are cheaper and give you more control over the process, but are difficult to master.
Temperature Regulation—Brewing temperature needs to be between 195F and 205F to produce quality espresso so make sure your machine is capable of reaching that range.
Manual machines give you less precise control over temperature; instead, you’ll have to adjust using more creative methods.
These machines will require you to spend time playing with different techniques before you find the espresso shot you like best. That being said, here are our picks for the best manual or lever espresso machines.
This modern spring piston machine is absolutely stunning with its chrome and brass finish and wooden handles.
Elektra has been making espresso machines since 1950, so their machines are heavily influenced by original models.
This one is specifically designed to look and function like a classic espresso machine but incorporates modern technology like safety features and temperature and pressure gauges.
This direct lever machine is designed to resemble antique machines from the early 20th century. In fact, it is essentially the same machine that La Pavoni sold in the 1950s, but has been updated throughout the years.
It’s a fairly basic machines, but it’s incredibly durable. Though some parts are plastic, the heating elements are stainless steel and the boiler is a nickel-plated chrome.
If you regularly clean and maintain the Europiccola, it should last for decades.
This machine is essentially an upgraded model of the Europiccola.
Its price point is more similar to the Elektra due to the larger boiler capacity, the addition of a pressure gauge, and beautiful wooden handles and knobs.
Both the Europiccola above and the Professional are direct lever machines so they will both have a steeper learning curve, even for experienced users.
This unique machine is nothing like the first 3 we reviewed above: the Flair operates without electricity and it’s only been on the market for a couple of years.
You essentially heat and assemble the group head every time you make a shot and pour boiling water in a cavity above the grounds yourself.
The process might throw you for a loop if you prefer the Italian-made classics. However, it makes a surprisingly solid cup of espresso.
Okay, okay. I’ll admit that this one is a little bit out of place. But, in all fairness, it is a manual espresso maker. Although it’s not an espresso ‘machine’, I knew I had to put it on this list after trying it for the first time.
The ROK Presso is a unique, portable espresso maker that launched in 2012.
It’s a solid, sturdy piece of equipment that makes the physical work of a manual machine easier by having two levers to hold that you simultaneously push down.
Like the Flair, some experts question whether this machine generates sufficient heat and pressure for espresso. However, despite being subject to scrutiny, the ROK pulls an excellent shot and continues to be a popular choice.
Make sure to check out our full review of the ROK Presso.
It’s hard to pick just one machine that will work for everyone. If you are looking for an attainable lever machine that will last you years and still give you enough romance to feel like you are embarking on an artistic process, we suggest the La Pavoni EPC-8.
If you want something high-end with modern technology and vintage design, go with the Elektra.
Finally, if you are looking for something simple, low cost, cutting-edge, and easy to use, we suggest the Flair or the ROK.