A how-to overview for using your manual lever-press espresso maker.
So, you’ve read part 1 of our “What to look for when buying a manual espresso machine” series and decided that a manual espresso maker is a good option for you, but now you’re asking what the variables are that you can control (and how do you control them?!) to get a great espresso?
Let me tell you - keep reading!
Variables to control when using a manual espresso maker
This guide will cover these 6 areas:
Preheating means heating the brew chamber (where the water is stored above the coffee grinds) before pulling your espresso shot.
It’s important to get the brew chamber of a manual espresso machine as hot as possible before extraction. If you don’t, the espresso maker body will absorb most of the heat from your brew water and you’ll be left with a lukewarm, under extracted espresso.
Water temperature influences extraction because it determines the yield percentage, which is the amount of elements that are extracted from the coffee.
Heat regulation can be the downfall of many manual (non-electric) and portable espresso makers.
Their appeal of being “unplugged”, simple, and manual means they don’t generally occupy an electric element used to heat the brew chamber to the 90-96deg celsius required for brewing espresso.
Not having a heater element can be seen as a negative, but we disagree!
With manual espresso machines, the preheat process is usually done using the hot water that will also be used for brewing. Following a good, simple preheat process with a quality manual espresso machine is important, and adds to the craft of brewing great espresso.
The Newton Brua has purposely designed the preheat process to be as simple, efficient and safe as possible.
From our first machine back in 2015, our design centered around a piston that allowed for fast and easy filling, preheating and extraction.
We designed the brew chamber to maximise the heat retention.
The solid, food-grade aluminum cylinder rapidly absorbs heat from the water during preheat (making preheating quick), and it stays hot for a looooooooong time.
This is great when making more than one coffee at a time. You can easily do this with the BRUA because we designed the workflow to be really easy too!
Grinding the beans
With manual espresso, consistent grind size is key, so it’s important to use a quality burr grinder when grinding your coffee beans. It’s also really important to use fresh beans. Manual espresso can be less forgiving when it comes to older, stale, or pre-ground coffee beans.
A quality burr grinder will provide you with the best grind consistency.
Never use a blade grinder!
A blade grinder will tend to excessively heat the beans during grinding and will leave you with a mixture of both coarse and fine grinds resulting in poor extraction and a terrible coffee - yucky spew!
You will also want to control the amount of grind you are using.
Weigh a single dose of whole beans before you grind (let’s say 16grams) and grind fine using the espresso setting.
Between grind size and grind dose, you can influence the time and rate of extraction. Crafting espresso on a manual lever-press espresso machine is all about controlling these variables.
Preparing the Portafilter
Grinding the right amount of beans to the correct consistency is a great start, now we need to prepare the coffee basket for extraction.
Also called “puck preparation”, a well-prepared coffee basket requires the coffee to be evenly distributed and tamped (pressed/compacted).
To do this you can use a few handy tools including:
- WDT tool (Weiss Distribution Technique - optional)
- Distributor (optional)
- Tamper (necessary!)
A WDT tool is a handheld tool with several fine needles that gets swirled around in a portafilter full of the coffee grind. It’s used to break up any lumps that might have formed during the grinding.
The distribution tool is similar to a tamper, but the face of the tool isn’t flat… it’s most likely wavy or chiseled.
We use the distribution tool to flatten out and evenly spread the coffee grind in the portafilter.
Lastly, the tamper is used to press the grind tightly into the portafilter.
Unlike the WDT and Distribution tool which became popular with the more recent surge of home brew bars and coffee stations, the tamper has been there since the beginning of espresso.
Here’s the process:
- With 16 grams of fresh coffee grind sitting in your coffee basket (portafilter), use the WDT tool to break up any clumpy bits of ground coffee that might be sticking together.
- Place the distribution tool on top of your coffee grind and turn it in place to evenly spread the grind.
- Sitting your coffee basket (portafilter) on a sturdy surface, place the tamper onto your coffee grind and firmly (and evenly!) press downwards to compress the grind into a firm puck.
Our Advice: Try using different pressures to tamp the grind to see how this changes your espresso!
Preinfusion is when the brew water makes contact with the puck (this part is called pre-brewing) with minimal pressure and is allowed to saturate the coffee grounds before pressure is applied.
*Pre-brew allows an initial small amount of water (not under pressure) to contact the puck. Its purpose is to reduce the chance of channeling and prepares the surface of the puck to accept more water under pressure without degrading.
Preinfusion allows the puck to swell and effectively starts the extraction process prior to any coffee dripping from the basket.
With manual lever-press espresso you get full control over this process.
Preinfusion is incredibly easy using the BRUA.
For example, as soon as the brew chamber has been filled and the lever starts to lift, the internal flow control valve opens to allow the water to make contact with the coffee puck.
Timing the preinfusion is also so simple with the BRUA. All you need to do is time how long it takes between lifting the lever and starting to apply pressure.
Our advice: Try experimenting with how long you allow for preinfusion. Do you notice the impact this has on extraction time? Is it more difficult to press the lever with a longer preinfusion? How does this impact the crema? Have fun testing out the variables!
Extraction is the process of dissolving the coffee grounds into the brew water by generating pressure in the machine's brew chamber and forcing the brew water through the coffee puck.
With manual lever machines, this is done manually using the lever arm which acts on a piston, and depending on the puck prep, can require some force! If your machine has a pressure gauge you would be aiming for around 9 bar of pressure, although you can still achieve fantastic results with less pressure than this.
A good rule of thumb when extracting espresso using a lever machine is to aim for a brew ratio of 1:2 extracted over 25-30 seconds.
So what’s “brew ratio”?
This is the ratio between the weight of ground coffee used (input) compared to the weight of the resulting espresso (output). For example, if you use 16 grams of coffee then you should be aiming for around 32 grams of resulting espresso (as a starting point). And if you achieve this over the 25-30 second extraction time then you’re most likely getting fantastic results!
The BRUA is known as a “direct lever” type espresso machine. This means the piston is connected directly to the lever through a linkage and when force is applied to the lever arm, the same force is directly applied to the piston.
Another popular type of lever operated machine is a “spring lever” machine, where a spring is activated to deliver a consistent force to the piston.
Direct lever machines like the BRUA are great for controlling and varying the pressure used throughout the extraction process. One of the benefits you may hear when people use a direct lever machine is the ability to recover a degrading shot. This will require a keen sense of awareness and experience, but with a direct lever machine it is possible to still achieve a great tasting espresso even if the extraction hasn’t gone to plan. This is near impossible when using a spring lever machine.
Lets face it, the worst bit of making coffee at home is the cleaning up after.
Wiping up spilled coffee grinds and cleaning out the machine of old grind residue and water scale isn’t fun. Unfortunately for most machines, clean-up requires substantial effort and is unavoidable.
Some critical areas to clean on a manual espresso maker include:
- Internal cylinder wall
- Piston and piston seals
- Water screen
- Portafilter seal
Because we understand how annoying it is to clean a c machine after every use, we designed the BRUA to be as m as possible. Here’s how:
We use a naked portafilter where the coffee basket can easily be removed and the grinds knocked out. Also, the distance between the water screen and the top of the coffee grounds eliminates the transfer of coffee particles to the internal brew chamber and portafilter seal. This means, all the “mess” is contained in the coffee basket.
We also designed the preheat process to flush out the machine before the portafilter is attached meaning the BRUA stays incredibly clean for long periods of time, even when used every day.