Manual espresso makers can sound like daunting pieces of equipment to add to your coffee arsenal, especially if you don’t consider yourself an expert enough on the art of extraction to use something like a vintage La Pavoni.
If you’ve wondered about the allure of a manual espresso machine but have been intimidated by the skill required to operate one, allow us to introduce you to the ROK Presso Manual Espresso Maker.
This uniquely designed machine is a way to brew espresso without the need for electricity. There is a small learning curve, of course, but the ROK is simple enough to understand and operate that it does most of the heavy calculations for you. Here’s what we think of this machine.
simplicity in operation never goes out of fashion
the price fairly matches its reputation in the industry
our rating, based on our sound and impartial assessment
In recent years, a number of manual, electric-free espresso machines like the ROK have popped up around the coffee world. Each operates using the same principles of pressure (see here), temperature (see here), and extraction (see here), but they are new enough to the market that they all operate with a slightly different design.
The ROK is fairly bulky for a machine of this class, but significantly more portable than the traditional manual lever espresso machines that must essentially find a home on the counter somewhere and stay there.
Here is what you'll find on the ROK:
Unlike many other manual machines, the ROK uses two levers to help create the pressure needed to extract espresso correctly and lessen the overall physical exertion needed to generate that pressure.
The ROK makes single or double shots of espresso with no complex heating system so you pour hot water directly into the single-serve water reservoir each time you make a fresh cup.
Most of the ROK is made from durable, heavy-duty metals that make up the body, frame, levers, and lever gears.
Each ROK comes with its own standard 49mm portafilter and an optional spout splitter that you can add to the bottom of the portafilter to make two separate single shots.
The ROK and all of its accessories (portafilter, tamp, milk frother) fit conveniently into a single, metal storage container that is portable enough for traveling.
Each ROK comes with its own manual milk frother. Just like the machine itself, the frother does not require electricity to work and will create a wide range of milk foam.
The bottom of the ROK contains four rubber, slip-resistant pads that prevent the machine from sliding around while you are brewing. This is a great added feature for safety and convenience.
Each ROK also comes with a 10-year warranty, which is a nice plus for a machine that sells in the $100-$200 price range.
The ROK sounds great in theory—an electricity-free manual machine that is portable and easy to use—but the real question is whether it can really brew quality espresso. Our overall impression is that this is not the right machine for someone who is looking to enjoy the novelty of espresso made with manual brewing but bypass the skills required to pull quality shots of espresso.
Instead, this machine is likely most suited for coffee enthusiasts who will appreciate both the novelty of this machine and the trial and error it will take to perfect the brewing method. It’s portability and no need for electricity makes it a great addition to any at-home barista’s arsenal of coffee-making equipment. For not much of an investment, you can tinker with the enjoyable process of making espresso completely by hand.
This is a durable machine but it is limited by the addition of a few cheaper parts that prevent it from truly being a piece of equipment that will last you forever. It’s easy to understand and operate, but will still take some time to master effectively.
Here is our breakdown of the ROK based on quality/performance, durability, and ease of use.
It is possible to pull a truly great shot out of this machine. In fact, America’s Test Kitchen rates it as the best manual espresso maker on the market (see video) due to its potential to deliver high-quality espresso will little effort.
We agree that there is tremendous potential for this machine to produce great espresso, but there are a couple of concerns that affect its quality. First, there is some concern about whether or not manual machines of this nature are really able to reach the standard 9 bars of pressure required to pull a good shot. There’s enough room for human error that the ROK also likely does not maintain stable pressure throughout the entire brewing process, which will affect the outcome of your shot.
Similarly, maintaining water temperature is difficult on the ROK, since there is no heating element. Instead, you heat water to the right temperature and pour it into the machine. That leaves room for error as the steel can cool the water, or the water can cool enough during the brewing process: the temperature you started brewing with may be radically different than the temperature you finish brewing with.
Many people report pulling great shots from the ROK, and we don’t doubt them. Doing so, however, will take a little bit of knowledge and troubleshooting on your part to manipulate the machine to get what you need out of it.
If you’re able to do that, then the ROK is actually quite capable of producing quality espresso. It’s even able to brew an espresso with a beautiful crema on top.
On another note, although the ROK comes with a manual milk steaming device, you might find that it's worth investing in an automatic milk frother for extra velvety steamed milk.
For durability, the ROK is both outstanding and disappointing. The body of the machine, including the gear mechanisms that operate the lever handles, are made entirely from stainless steel. The quality of stainless steel gives the ROK a heavy-duty feeling and means you should be able to get a lot of use out of it before anything breaks.
However, there are a few things we don’t like. First, there are some reports that the portafilter has a tendency to crack. We aren’t sure if ROK is aware of this design flaw or not, but we’d love to see an upgrade in the coming years to address this potential issue.
Our biggest concern with the ROK is the plastic water reservoir. Rather than using heat-resistant glass or more stainless steel, the part of the ROK that you fill with hot water for brewing is made from plastic. It’s a fairly sturdy plastic, but it’s still a much lower quality than we’d like to see.
The lower grade materials are part of what keeps the ROK’s price in an affordable range, but the price point might be the tradeoff for a piece of equipment that will truly last a long time.
Probably the biggest issue with the ROK is how much of a learning curve there is before you can pull a great shot. This machine has the potential to be an incredible espresso maker, but it will take a little time to understand how to adjust things.
There are a few things you can do to ensure a more consistent shot with the ROK—like filling it up with hot water to warm up the steel—but it will most likely take you several trials and errors to find which method will give you the shot you’re looking for.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Many people find this process to be an enjoyable part of espresso making. However, this necessary learning curve is not for the faint of heart. If you don’t already know a considerable amount about espresso making or are not looking to spend the time investment in a machine, then this is likely not the right product for you.
There are only a handful of other products on the market that attempt a completely manual, electricity-free way of brewing espresso. One is the Flair Espresso Maker and another is the Handpresso Wild Hybrid.
Like the ROK, both of these machines operate without electricity to manually extract espresso. The Flair is significantly more portable than the ROK since it actually breaks apart to fit inside a much smaller, more compact carrying case. It has a similar learning curve to the ROK in that it might take a few weeks of espresso trials to figure out exactly how to make a quality cup of espresso.
In terms of quality, the Flair has been known to pull a more consistently high-quality shot over the ROK. However, in terms of durability, the ROK’s stainless steel frame is a bit sturdier than the polished aluminum frame of the Flair. Both are available for a similar price and you can expect to invest around the same amount of time in tinkering with each machine before you get the shot you want.
The Handpresso is different from the other machines in that it requires no manual lever of any sort. Instead, you pump the machine to increase the pressure to 16 bars, fill the espresso pod, pour in hot water, and push a button to begin extraction. The Handpresso is extremely portable since it is so small and has the option of using ESE pods just to make things even simpler.
In terms of ease of operation, the Handpresso is not quite as difficult to master as the other two machines since there are fewer moving parts. That does mean, however, that pulling a good shot out of the Handpresso will come down more to the quality of the coffee beans, grind, and tamping pressure used.
If you are looking for something that is easy to master so you can start pulling great shots sooner, go with the Handpresso. If you are willing to put in some effort to perfecting your extraction method, both the Flair and the ROK will produce quality espresso if you work for it so consider their other pros and cons to decide which is right for you.