Anyone who has spent enough time with an espresso machine in their home or workplace eventually arrives at a moment of crisis... the machine refuses to perform properly, mysterious leaks appear, or some other catastrophic failure comes between human and coffee. But it is in fact these periods of frustration that lead us to a more intimate understanding of the machines. So many espresso impassionados have a story that starts... when my machine broke down... and now they are experts at espresso machine repair!
Thomas McIntosh, self-described "architect, artist, and relentless perfectionist with a passion for espresso", takes this storyline to a whole new level. It started with a small project to replace a missing badge on his home espresso machine. This soon snowballed into a complete rethink of the machine, diving deep into every component until he realized he was actually designing a new espresso machine. It was five years in the making, with endless iterations and trials, but the result was the beautiful Lapera, a modern lever machine.
We were so fortunate to have Thomas visit us here at the Bakke Coffee Museum a few weeks ago. Thomas inspired us with his thoughtful conversation and deep knowledge of coffee and design. He also generously tutored us in the finesse of operating a lever machine, specifically the Lapera. Making espresso is always a gratifying sensory experience, but pulling a good shot with a lever machine is a real skill requiring focus and attention. And patience, and probably a lot of wasted shots until you get it right! But what a pleasure, being engaged with the physics of the spring and lever action and seeing the result in the beautiful crema! An accomplishment, no question.
The Bakke Coffee Museum collection houses many classic lever machines of both commercial and home varieties. They are easily recognizable for their iconic looks. But many people don't know that the invention of the lever brought us espresso as we know it today. What a revolution!
As with most inventions, we have an individual to credit for the innovation, whose success was of course influenced by the thoughts and ideas of others all flowing together in the moment. But all the same we must thank Achille Gaggia for developing and manufacturing the first lever espresso machines. Lever technology was in development in the 1940s, but due to the disruption of WWII was not realized until the early 1950s. Then there was a proliferation of lever machine models replacing the old vertical machines in the cafes of Italy, and spreading across Europe.
Above - historic advertisements for Gaggia lever machines, from the Fondazione Fiera Milano archive.
The magic of the lever is in the 9 bars of pressure that produces the delicious crema that makes espresso espresso. The action of pulling down the lever (which requires a surprising amount of force) compresses a powerful spring. On release of the lever, the spring expands, and water is forced through the coffee at 9 bars of pressure. The old vertical machines, relying on the pressure of steam to push the hot water through the coffee, could only achieve 2 to 3 bars of pressure. They made very hot, fast coffee, but not espresso. Imagine, life before espresso as we know it today!
Although now espresso machine technology has advanced to control all the variables so that the shot will be reliably perfect every time, there are still many purists who stand by the manual method of the lever machine. Now, having had a little practice on the Lapera, I am inspired to work on perfecting my skills. Like everything else, a good shot of espresso tastes even better when you feel like you've really earned it!
If you'd like to read more about Thomas' visit to the Bakke Coffee Museum you can read about it here on his blog.
Here are a few images of the lovely Lapera.
And from the museum collection, a classic La San Marco two group lever machine from the 1960s, nicknamed the "Disco Volante" for its resemblance to a flying saucer.
The Bakke Coffee Museum houses many variations of the lever-operated espresso machine, come visit and see for yourself!