I have always wanted a lever to answer my curiosity in addition to having a machine that is portable as my QuickMill Vetrano isnít going anyway on a temporary basis. When WLL cleared out the last few they had I could not pass up the deal. I placed the order and in a few days it arrived.
I must admit I was a little intimidated on using a full manual lever as I thought the ritual was going to be far less forgiving on extracting a great shot. Well, it was MUCH easier than I had imagined, and I pulled a great shot on only my second try. From there they only got better as I became more accustomed to its use. What Iím basically saying is anyone can pull great shots on this machine with just a little bit of practice.
With that being said, I must warn you that you must have a suitable grinder to pair up with this machine to really see what it is capable of. I paired it with a Mazzer Mini (which I later sold) and now use a Macap M4D when using it at home and with one of my hand mills Ė PeDe or Zassenhaus if traveling. A whirly blade or cheap burr grinder simply will not cut it as you will not be able to grind fine enough or even enough to really get a high quality extraction. Anyone who knows anything about espresso will tell you not to skimp on the grinder. Adhere to this advice!
While Iím on the topic of getting the most from this machine (or really any machine), I need to mention the importance of fresh roasted beans. Beans start dying the minute they are roasted, starting off with degassing heavily for the first few days. Pulling a shot with beans that are too freash will result in a ton of crema that will disappear quickly Ė think of a fountain drink with too much carbonation and not enough syrup; very lacking in body though it may look delicious. Starting at about day 7 post roast (varies a little by beans) up through about the two week point the beans are at their peak, delivering you the absolute best flavor possible from those beans. After that, you start losing some of the body, but fresh beans will still be far better than even high priced pre-bagged/canned beans. So, if possible, by fresh, and buy in quantities that you will use within two weeks. If buying in bulk, place the excess beans in canning jars as soon as possible after roasting (must be cool though). Enough about beans; back to this little wonder.
This is a full manual machine, meaning the operator controls the preinfusion (water saturation on the coffee puck before pulling a shot) and the downward pressure when pulling the shot. The pressure of this downward movement depends on the coarseness of the grind. A simple rule of thumb is to match your grind to your pull pressure so that the extraction from start to finish takes just shy of 30 seconds, and you should not have more than tiny drops coming out of the portafilter during the preinfusion. The pressure really is irrelevant, though you donít want to have more than about 30 lbs. of pressure or you run the risk of wearing out the piston seals prematurely. To see what 30 lbs feels like, place the machine on your bathroom scale to measure the downward force.
A nice feature of the machine is the 51mm portafilter. Although small in diameter, it makes up for overall volume with a deep cavity. This deep cavity helps (my opinion) to reduce channeling (water that will seep down the sides of the puck, thus preventing a full extraction). Compared the the 58 mm on my Vetrano, it is tiny with smaller pucks, so I cut the shots a little shorter on volume than I do on the Vetrano. I usually have about 1.5 ounces on the Gaggia lever versus 1.75 on the Vetrano. This is a minor point, but thought it was worth mentioning.
Factory settings for boiler pressure vary on these machines and range from about .6 bar to about 1.0 bar. The higher the bar, the greater the temp and steaming ability. The downside to a higher pressure is that you will overheat the head more quickly. I had to adjust mine up a little from .6 to about .75 since my shots were a little on the sour side (too cool a temp). To do so, I had to remove the Torx screw under the drip tray, which allows you to remove the bottom cover, exposing the guts of the machine Ė there are very few. I had to scrape away the white glue that is installed at the factory in order to turn the lock ring that adjust tension on the pressurestat. Once done, I simply reinstalled the bottom cover and Torx screw. I now had a slightly higher water temp in the boiler and better steaming ability.
This .75 boiler pressure fits my routine (outlined below). A 1.0 bar pressure will work if you do not flush at all before pulling a shot, but if you pull a second shot soon afterwards youíll have a burnt espresso as the grouphead will be too hot. Chances are youíll need to adjust either the pressure or your routine to get the best out of the machine, but this will be the case on almost any machine, so donít think of it as a negative.
If you are an espresso only drinker, you may want a lower boiler pressure so as to minimize the overheating of the group which will result in shots that will become too bitter (too hot of a temp) if pulled in succession. Be aware that lower temps will hamper the steaming ability a little unless you slow down the tip (see details below).
Let me take you through the steps of pulling a shot from start to finish.
- Fill up the boiler until the sight glass is about ĺ full, and turn the machine on. This leaves headspace for better steaming.
- Allow about 6 minutes for the machine to warm up. Once the pressure stabilizes at the top of the boiler pressure setting, open up the steam arm for a few seconds (3 Ė 5 is plenty) to release any false pressure. Allow the pressure to build back up.
- Warm up the grouphead by pulling a blank shot (no coffee in the portafileter) into the cup you will be using for the drink. Itíll also warm up the cup, which is a great thing.
- Take out the portafilter, dry the basket, and fill with your freshly ground beans. Tamp according to the grind Ė light for super fine; harder for more coarse grounds. This can be fine tuned depending on the result of the next few steps.
- Insert the portafilter.
- Dump and dry the water from the cup youíll use for the shot.
- Slowly lift the lever until it stops at the top of the stroke while holding the portafilter handle so the machine will not move. Hold the lever at this position to preinfuse the puck - I go about 8 seconds. Youíll hear the gurgling stop when the chamber is full of water. (IF you see anything more than tiny drops while holding the lever at the top of the stroke, your grind is too coarse. For your next shot, tighten your grind.)
- Start your pull, working on keeping the pressure constant. The movement will be slow at first but will gain momentum as you get farther along in the pull.
- When you reach the bottom of the pull, remove the cup and allow the final drops of the shot to go into the drip tray as these will only detract from the quality of the shot.
- If making a cappuccino, open the steam wand for a second or two to blow out condensation. Place your frothing pitcher with milk filled up 1/3 to 1/2 way under the tip of the wand and open teh steam valve.
- Stretch the milk up to about 95 Ė 100 degrees and then place the steaming tip under the surface of the milk to begin folding until your reach 140 degrees. You only need to dump it about 2 cm or so. Do not let it touch the bottom or sides of the pitcher. The result should be nice microfoam that is perfect for pouring latte art.
NOTE: A very common complaint is the steaming tip being too fast to get good microfoam since the heating element cannot keep up with the rapidly dropping pressure, resulting in wet steam that produces hot milk with bubbles too big for microfoam. To fix this, I performed a very simple mod that is very well know and used on this machine. I closed two of the three holes on my tip with toothpicks to slow down the frothing so the heating element for the boiler could now keep up with the dropping of pressure as I steamed. The result was microfoam that I could make in my sleep as the steam was now hot and dry, with boiler pressure staying constant versus dropping to .4 bar by the end of steaming. Although it doubled the time required for steaming (about 45 seconds for a 5 oz cappuccino), it is now matched to the boiler pressure and is the best balance for optimum performance.
With all that being said, let me give you a summary. This is a very simply designed machine that is capable of producing a phenomenal shot of espresso, especially when matched with a suitable grinder and quality beans. Chances are 99% of you will be happy with it right out of the box, but there are a few tweaks you can do to really get everything this little wonder has to offer. If you are looking for a machine to make multiple drinks (over 4) when you have friends over, this is not the machine for you as youíll have to let it cool completely in order to refill the boiler, and that takes quite a while. It is so simple, with the only electrical parts concerning the heating element, there is very little to go wrong. And if something does break or become worn (seals), it is a very easy and inexpensive fix.