How to use the La Pavoni Espresso Machine

If you have a La Pavoni Europiccola and can’t seem to get good coffee from it, this article is for you. There is an abundance of information about this little machine on forums, Youtube and all over the web, and every single one differs from the next. It took me a while trying to follow these methods and as a result came up with my own that works very well. This is not a definitive guide, just one way that I know produces good coffee consistently for me.

The main things to consider are:

  • Coffee bean roast and freshness
  • Grind size
  • Basket Preparation

A quick note about my machine. My Europiccola was made around 1991, which is the second generation and a 49mm basket. Around the year 2000, La Pavoni revised the Europiccola and called it the “Millennium” version and changed to a 51mm basket as well as some internal changes. All of the information following is based on my second generation with a 49mm basket. The process will work for any Europiccola or Professional, but you may have to adjust dosage accordingly.

Second generation circa 1991 La Pavoni Europiccola

Coffee Beans

The coffee you use for this machine needs to be of the best quality you can get. This is very difficult to do with any coffee bought at the supermarket or any place other than a coffee roaster or possibly a local cafe. The best way I know to get high quality (and much cheaper) coffee is to buy “green” coffee beans and roast them myself. This does not need to be expensive or difficult. I use a $15 popcorn popper that can be bought anywhere online and roast coffee at home for usually $4 to $8 per pound, and is the freshest and best coffee available to me. There will be another post with more information on this process, but all you do is put about one quarter cup of raw coffee beans in the popcorn popper and wait six to fifteen minutes. It’s that easy. You will want either a medium or medium-dark roast for espresso in general. You can certainly use any coffee bean regardless of type or roast for espresso, but the lighter roasts are going to be more difficult to get any natural sweetness and will be much more likely to come out under extracted and sour tasting. If you are not interested in roasting your own, you could buy from a local or online coffee roaster, or the supermarket. I know from roasting my own coffee, after about five to seven days after roasting the quality starts going down, so I suggest getting the most recently roasted. Also, you definitely want whole beans and to grind your own if you are going this route.

Grind Size

Grind size, 11 grams in the double basket

Grind size and quality are also very important for this machine. It is very hard to put a metric on the grind size since the particles are somewhere between the size of powdered sugar and fine sand. There is an easy way to find the grind size needed, and we will get to that in the section about dialing in the espresso. On most grinders, the setting will be very near the finest it can go, but beware you can go too fine as well. Speaking of the grinder, you will want a grinder designed for espresso and with either conical or flat burrs. There are manual hand grinders that are suitable as well, just make sure to do your research and know it is suitable for espresso. Generally, I consider customer reviews more accurate than advertising from the manufacturer. There are many grinders that will work, and I personally use a Faema Family flat burr grinder that has been around quite a while and still going strong. If you look on sites like Ebay and Craigslist you might be able to find a good grinder for under $100, and on the upper end go into the thousands depending on what you want in a grinder.

Basket Preparation

Dosage is how much coffee you put in the basket. I use the double basket (shown on the left side in the above photo) which is the one with straight sides. You may have the single basket that came with the machine and has a sharply tapered bottom, but we will not be using this one. The best way to start is with a digital scale set to grams. You don’t want to overfill the basket because this will interfere when you go to put in the portafilter. After tamping, you want to have about 1/4″ from the surface of the coffee to the top of the basket. I have found that 11 grams works very well, and this conveniently works out to two tablespoons of whole beans. After you load 11 grams of coffee in the double basket, you will want to use a tamp that fits properly and apply a decent amount of force to compress the ground coffee. You can use the tamp that came with the machine, but a 49mm tamp with a flat bottom (not convex like the provided one) works best. Some people take lengths to actually measure the force applied on a scale, but I find that all you need to do is compress the coffee to remove any air pockets and make one solid “puck”. I have experimented with using light and heavy force and honestly it doesn’t seem to make much difference, so no need to worry too much about this.

The Process

When I’m going to make coffee, the process starts with putting water in the boiler and turning on the machine. The switches will vary depending on when your machine was made. Mine looks like this:

I will fill the boiler with water until the level in the sightglass is full. You don’t want to over-fill the boiler because there needs to be room for the steam that will be generated, and the overflow tube by the steam wand and over pressure valve will be releasing a lot boiling water which can burn you. Turn on the red switch “I” and turn the healing element to the “II” position. In about eight minutes, the water inside will reach boiling and steam will start shooting out of the over pressure valve. I will purge the steam wand for a few seconds until a steady flow of steam comes out, close the steam valve, and switch the heating element down to the “I” position. I will then grind my coffee, tamp, and insert the portafilter into the machine. At this point the steam coming out of the over pressure valve should have slowed to just a small hiss. Raise the lever slowly all the way to the top to release hot water into the group. Place an espresso cup under the spout and after the handle has been raised 10-15 seconds, start pulling the lever down. If this is the first espresso, there will not be much resistance until the lever is about half way down, but this is OK. The actual force is similar to the tamp pressure, in that the exact number is not that important. This should take between 15 to 25 seconds from start to finish. All you need to do is have firm and steady pressure until the desired amount of coffee is in the cup. How much coffee should be in the cup? I like to use a 1:2 ratio, which is 11g ground coffee in the basket that makes 22g coffee in the cup. This is where the digital scale comes in handy again. Once you have used the scale to fill the basket and measure the output of coffee in the cup numerous times, you start to know what the correct amounts look like and you will not need to use the scale every time after that unless you just want to. You will know if the grind size, coffee roast and lever pressure is correct if you get two “mouse tails” of thick dark brown foamy coffee are coming out and the end product should look similar to this:

This is time when you will find if all the variables are close enough or something is off. It is unlikely the coffee is perfect the first time through, so I will show my process for dialing it in next.

To sum up the process:

  1. Fill the boiler to the top of the sightglass
  2. Turn on the machine and set the heating element to “II”
  3. When steam is shooting out of the top, purge steam wand for a few seconds
  4. Turn heating element to “I” position
  5. Grind, tamp and insert portafilter
  6. Raise lever and wait 10-15 seconds
  7. Place cup under spout
  8. Pull lever firmly

Dialing in the Espresso

The first thing I check for when using a new or unfamiliar coffee is the resistance on the lever when I pull the shot. If the resistance is too light and the coffee comes out very quick (ten seconds or less from start to finish) the grind is too course. If the resistance is very strong and the coffee barely comes out or not at all, the grind is too fine. I usually do not taste the coffee at this point and go straight to cleaning out the grinder of any residual grinds, adjusting accordingly and starting over. Once the resistance on the lever is firm and I get two nice “mouse tails” and nice dark brown foamy coffee coming out of the spouts and it takes around 20 seconds to pull the shot, I will then taste it. If the coffee is bitter, it is over extracted. This can be fixed by roasting to a lighter roast and/or using a smaller ratio. For example, If I used 11 grams of ground coffee and the output weighed 25 grams, I will try 11 grams of ground coffee and 20 grams output next time. Bitter coffee can also be caused by the group head getting too hot. If the machine sits for more than 10 or 15 minutes while it’s turned on, the grouphead can get too hot and burn the coffee. If this is the case, try to reduce the amount of time the machine is on and at operating temperature when making your coffee. If the coffee is sour, it is under extracted. This can be from the group head being too cool or most commonly from too light of a roast. Once you know the correct grind size and get the roast to your liking, then you can make small tweaks to the process to see if it makes the coffee better. You can always revert back to the grind size and roast that you know works if you get too far off course.

Steaming Milk

The La Pavoni takes a bit of practice, but can produce fantastic steamed milk. Turn the heating element to the “II” setting and wait for the boiler to come to full power (you will know by the sound and amount of steam coming out of the top valve), place the milk pitcher under the steam wand and keep the tip just under the surface and to one side of the pitcher. Turn the steam knob at the top left of the machine, and keep the tip just under the surface, adjusting for when the milk level rises. Also, make sure to keep it positioned to the side where the milk is constantly swirling. You are done when the milk pitcher is just too hot to touch, and the milk level will be near the top of the pitcher. I have another article on steaming milk here if you would like to read more.

Final Words

Hopefully this guide can help you if you have been struggling to get a good espresso from your La Pavoni. It is not difficult but it does require patience and remember that this machine has the ability to make espresso as good as any commercial or home machine. Please subscribe and let me know about your experience with this machine and any questions you may have below.

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