Something I learned early on with my lever machine usage - you don't buy them for banging out shot after shot. You buy them for the hands on experience, which is what I'll be primarily talking about here.
The entire time I was evaluating this product, I kind of dreaded having to write this performance section. The reason is simple - you really do have to use a lever machine, especially a straight piston machine like the La Pavonis to know how they perform. Much has been written about the chrome peacock and how to use it (and we even provided a visual step by step guide on the Operations page), but none of it really prepares you for how it really works, and my fear is this review will come up short.
That said (and man, did I set myself up), I'll try my best.
The La Pavoni machines are straight piston machines - there's basically two types of domestic lever machines - piston and spring piston. The piston style relies on your muscle power and a lever to push water through ground coffee. A spring lever works differently - you load or "cock" an internal spring by pulling down on a lever, and then you release it. The spring then does the job of pushing water through the ground coffee. When there's no coffee to create pressure, the lever slams upward really fast, and reports of lost teeth by inattentive operators have been heard.
This kind of stuff is more suited for the Operation section of this review, I know, but it is mentioned here for a very important reason I cannot stress enough:
You are the pump when using a La Pavoni. So the machine's performance is very much tied to you and how you perform.
Finding the Balance
I wrote previously that you need to find your "sea legs" with a La Pavoni. That means you need a few weeks (or months, or longer) experience with it to know how much pressure, and how steady a push (or pull, depending on your angle of attack) you need to deliver a great shot of espresso. It took me about two weeks to even get familiar with the requirements, and to this day (some two months later, using the machine almost every day), I'm still finding it trial and error at times. In my very small test group consisting of 3 women and 2 men, results were widely varied - two of the women and one of the men found it very hard to maintain a consistent, equal pressure and overall, found the machine too difficult to use. The other woman found it very intuitive, and got the hang of it after a few tries, as did the other man. The woman who had the most success with the machine loved the aspect of the "hands on" approach to crafting the drink.
And I think that is where the real balance is - you can do great things with a lever machine if you are really into the process, and find it rewarding to be such an integral part of the espresso making craft. The moment you find it uncomfortable or too difficult, it is time to move on to another type of machine.
Early on in this Detailed Review, I claimed my first three shots pulled with the La Pavoni were great shots. Well, as the saying goes, "you ain't seen nothing yet". And it is so true - after I really got a handle (pun intended) on the machine, I was pulling some spectacular shots... as long as it was the first shot after turning on the machine. With my version of the Professional, the first shot is always the best shot with the machine, at least in my testing. After that the machine is too hot, and attempts to cool down the grouphead result in inconsistent results.
But man, those first shots rock. Absolutely heaps of crema rivaling any other machine I've tried, and there seems a certain sweetness from the consistent flow - in fact, I would hazard to guess a well crafted lever shot is on par with the best rotary pump produced shots from commercial machines, and it comes down to two factors:
- consistent water temperatures (relative throughout the shot, because you preload the water)
- consistent, non-vibe-produced water pressure on the bed of coffee
My palate is tuned enough now that I have noticed the sweeter, more smooth shots that a well maintained commercial espresso machine delivers, thanks to superior water temperature stability and the constant pressure of a rotary pump. With the right skills, practice and patience, you can get similar results from a lever machine. It's such a shame that it is limited to the first shot.
I also think this is why single basket shots taste great from a lever machine, again in my very subjective tastebuds' opinion. I believe the preload of water is the key, even more than the preinfusion - the fact that all your water for that single is loaded into the grouphead gives you supreme temperature stability across the pull.
This is where the La Pavoni gets spanked by semi auto and automatic traditional machines. And this is also why La Pavoni has redesigned their grouphead and water channel on the newest models. Simply put, lever machines are by and large a one shot wonder.
I did manage to get decent repeatability from the Professional, but consistency was lost. The technique I favoured was using a bowl of ice water, and soaking a dish cloth in it. After I locked and loaded for my first shot, I would turn the machine off, then pull the shot (you don't need power to pull a shot - nifty, huh?). Then I would wrap the very cold dishcloth around the grouphead and channel from the boiler to the grouphead. I would drink the shot, then after about a minute, remove the portafilter, and dump the spent puck.
At this point, I would notice about a 20 to 30F drop in the surface temperature of the the channel between the grouphead and boiler, after I removed the dishcloth. Grind, lock and load again, and turn the machine on. I would let the boiler get back up to its peak of .95BAR, then pull the shot. Usually it was close to the first shot - sometimes better even. But consistency was a problem.
The La Pavoni is not an easy machine to use, when you consider the wealth of semi automatic, automatic and super auto espresso machines on the market place. What could be easier to use than pressing a single button to brew espresso?
I had no real problems using the machine in terms of reach, hand placement, and exertion of force, all collectively called the "angle of attack". But shorter people in our small test group did have problems using the machine. Where I would "push" a shot, as in pushing down on the lever from an elevated angle with my arm, others would have to "pull" the shot, pulling downward on the lever.
Where I did have problems was with balance on the machine. The base is very light and very prone to lifting off the table or sliding around. Operating a La Pavoni is a two handed, firm operation. Conversely, the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva I am evaluating could possibly be used single handed - the machine has more weight and the base is fairly heavy (though I don't recommend operating either machine single handed).
The lightweight base of the La Pavoni is especially noticeable when you are lifting the lever to introduce water into the grouphead. For me, holding the machine at the screw cap was ineffective; I had to hold the portafilter handle, and it was very ackward. Perhaps my left handed approach was failing me again. And forget holding the machine. Portions of the base are perfectly safe to touch, but you could burn yourself. Stick with holding something black on the machine, and you should be okay.
I think if La Pavoni figures out some way to add maybe 5 pounds or more weight to the base using dead weight, the usability of the machine would be greatly improved.
Product durability is a tough thing for even our Detailed Review process to fully evaluate, and it is something I cannot evaluate and respond to with any kind of confident results - we simply don't have enough time with the machine. I can only go by what long time La Pavoni users have mentioned in the past.
The most serious durability problem with La Pavoni Lever machines seems to be the gaskets used in the grouphead pistons. They wear, and many owners recommend changing them at least once per year. This is not something easily done; a skilled mechanical person might be able to do it, but it is an intricate procedure that you should get done by a qualified technician. Because of this, the cost of ownership of the product does increase.
I have been told that older La Pavoni lever machines had some "finish" problems with their outer coating of chrome, but it appears that the more recent machines have fixed this problem. The wall of the base is really thin, and can be easily dented if you wanted to try doing it, but the boiler is a solid piece, as is the grouphead, lever, and other components, and I have no real fear that these can be damaged.
In some of my testing I exerted enormous pressure (like most of my body weight) on the Lever to see how fine I could grind and not stall the grouphead (hint - I did manage to stall it). The lever itself came out like a champ, with no visible bend or damage to it, even with all that weight on a weird angle to the body of the machine.
And lastly, I want to again point out that with La Pavoni machines, you get nationwide service in the US; something not all major brands offer today. This adds to the value of the product.