Cafelat Robot Review: The Best Manual Lever Espresso Machine?
The Cafelat Robot espresso maker definitely stands out from the crowd thanks to its quirky science fiction design. But you don’t need me to tell you that; you can see that for yourself. You’re reading this review to find out how well it makes espresso — and just as importantly, how well it makes espresso when compared to its competitors.
So read on as we do a deep dive into the details of this clever little brewer. We’re going to cover how it works, how well it works, how long it lasts, and how it stacks up against the competition.
Spoiler alert: prepare to be impressed.
Summary: The Cafelat Robot
- Manual lever espresso machine with unique retro design
- Brews shots of espresso as well as machines many times its price
- Durable and long-lasting with no plastic components
This has become my go-to machine. I love it. I use it daily for my espresso shots. After the initial dialling of beans, this machine has been able to extract well balanced, flavourful espresso.– Customer
The Full Cafelat Robot Review
If you want to brew top-of-the-line espresso without dropping thousands of dollars, a manual lever machine like the Cafetlat Robot is the way to go (1). It does away with any extraneous parts, like a boiler, pump, milk steaming system, and electronic controls. So the only things you’re paying for are just what you need to make great espresso.
Cafelat is a coffee company based in Hong Kong. Longtime espresso expert, Paul Pratt, founded it. Pratt worked his way through every aspect of the coffee industry, beginning as a barista and eventually establishing himself as a well-regarded technician for top brand La Marzocco.
He decided to found Cafelat over a decade ago and put his years of expertise into developing a line of barista accessories. Soon the company’s success led him to imagine bigger and better things, and in 2018 he launched the Cafelat Robot on Kickstarter to considerable acclaim (2). It may have been a risk, but it has since become the brand’s flagship product (3).
So what makes this little machine so unique? Why is it beloved by novices and coffee nerds alike? Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss.
Keep reading for a detailed breakdown of everything there is to know about the Cafelat Robot espresso maker, from its funky design to its maintenance needs.
Design – 4/5
You can’t talk about the Cafelat Robot without first talking about its unique and playful look, which results from Cafelat’s collaboration with Danish artist and designer Karina Mencke (4). It has a vintage science fiction feel that is totally in keeping with its name.
Like any novel design, it has proven a bit divisive. Some detractors claim it looks too “cute” or “childish,” but overall, most users are enthusiastic about the retro look. And according to company founder Pratt, the cute look isn’t reflective of its serious capabilities.
Do not be fooled by the toy-like cutesy Robot looks. The Robot means business and is capable of pulling espresso shots like a professional machine.
Of course, aesthetics are entirely a matter of personal taste. It’s up to you whether you think the Robot will fit nicely in your kitchen. Though to help on that front, Cafelat does offer it in a series of fun colours. If you have a penchant for interior design, you’ll appreciate the options. You can find it in a vibrant blue, a bold red, a muted cream, or the trendy retro green. Initially, it was also offered in plain polished aluminum, and you can still find some of these older models in good working order if that’s more your look.
How functional is it?
When it comes to the functionality of this design, it’s even more impressive than the aesthetic. We’ll talk about the workflow in more detail when we cover the Brewing Capacity below. But in general, even though it’s a tad unusual, it’s convenient once you get the hang of it.
I especially appreciated this design because Pratt opted to use the industry-standard 58 mm filter basket diameter. True, the stainless steel baskets that come with the Robot are unusual in their depth, but the standard diameter makes it easy to purchase accessories like dosing cups, tampers, and funnels. And in fact, the added depth is convenient for dosing. It’s easier than usual to add grounds without spilling, and you can even grind directly into the basket without the typical mess of ground coffee.
The Tiny Quirks
A few minor design quirks that I wouldn’t mind seeing addressed in future iterations of this machine. For one, the area at the base between the two support legs is relatively narrow, making it nearly impossible to squeeze in a scale. It’s easy enough to weigh the water as you add it to the portafilter, but this requires some trial and error to dial in and shouldn’t be necessary. Most espresso enthusiasts prefer to measure the weight of prepared espresso when brewing.
For two, it would be nice to see an adjustment to the shape of the Robot’s “hands.” Pulling a shot doesn’t require you to be a fitness buff by any means, but it does require a bit of muscle. The system with two arms rather than a single lever, which you see on competitors like La Pavoni and the Flair, is less intuitive, and the design of the hands doesn’t help.
While the wrench-shaped hands definitely add to the distinctive look of the Robot, they aren’t that comfortable to hold, especially if you’re trying to exert a lot of force. According to the company, they were precision machined to hold the tamper, not a barista’s hand — arguably a strange choice. Cafelat is well aware of the issue, so Paul Pratt designed a set of aluminum “mittens” that slot over the wrenches and make them more comfortable to hold. This is a clever solution, but the mittens really ought to be included with the purchase rather than sold separately.
One more thing
A final minor complaint is that the position and angle of the pressure gauge mean that it can be challenging to see as you’re pulling a shot. Pulling a shot takes enough physical force that it’s not always practical to be craning your neck to view the gauge, so it would be nice to make its angle adjustable.
Brewing Capacity – 4.5/5
There’s no need to beat around the bush here: the Cafelat Robot brews incredible espresso. It’s certainly on par with espresso machines many times its price. The only caveat is that you’ll have to work for it.
When I say “work for it,” I don’t just mean you’ll have to push the levers, although that is also true physically. I mean, you’ll have to practice your workflow and dial in your shot. This machine does very little for you.
However, suppose you’re the sort of person who enjoys the hobby of espresso, and you appreciate having total control over every aspect of the process. In that case, you’ll probably find the practice to be a big part of the fun.
In contrast to a standard automatic or semi-automatic espresso maker, the Robot coffee maker has neither a boiler nor a pump. So you need a separate hot water source, typically a kettle, to replace the boiler. And you need your biceps to replace the pump in generating 9 bar of pressure.
The whole operation of the Robot is unique, even compared to other manual espresso machines. It all revolves around the portafilter and filter basket, which essentially doubles as the brewing chamber. This is why the walls of the filter basket are so tall.
To brew coffee, you place the filter basket in the portafilter, add finely ground coffee, and tamp as normal. Now things get a little weird. You then place the dispersion screen on top of the puck of coffee and add near-boiling water. Finally, lock the portafilter into the machine and pull the shot.
Luckily, manoeuvring a portafilter full of hot water into an espresso machine sounds more challenging than it is. You’ll master it quickly.
The basket holds between about 10 and 20 grams of coffee so that you can pull a single or double shot with this brewer (5). But keep in mind that the more coffee you pack in there, the harder it will be to press the levers manually.
As you press down, you can monitor the pressure using the pressure gauge attached to one of the Robot’s arms. There is a model without a pressure gauge if you want to save a bit of cash, but I think it’s a worthwhile splurge. And coffee expert and former World Barista Champion James Hoffmann agree.
This one does have a pressure gauge so you can see how much pressure you’re applying in real time, which is kind of nice.
In fact, one of the coolest things about manual espresso machines is that you can experiment with pressure profiling, for which being able to monitor the pressure in real-time is crucial (6). By adjusting the pressure applied during pre-infusion and pulling the shot, you can coax different flavours out of your coffee (7). This is one reason these machines are so popular among coffee fanatics.
Now let’s talk about thermal mass, which tends to be a challenging aspect of the workflow for machines without boilers. In something like a standard E61 machine, hot water circulates from the boiler to the group and the portafilter, ensuring it’s all at the same temperature. But there is no such system on the Robot or other lever machines like the Flair. So if your hot espresso comes in contact with a thick piece of cold steel, it’s inevitably going to lose some of its heat. And we don’t want that.
Now, some good news.
Fortunately, the parts of the Robot that contact your espresso, the bottomless portafilter and filter basket, have very low thermal mass. If you add just-off-boiling water to the brewing chamber, you’ll get a perfect temperature espresso without needing to preheat anything. This is a significant advantage over the Flair, which requires you to preheat several components in hot water.
An exception, however, is if you want to use the double spout rather than the bottomless portafilter, which you would do if you wanted to pull two single shots at the same time. The stainless steel spout attachment is sturdy and well-made, but this also means that it has significant thermal mass. If you plan to use it, let it soak in hot water first to avoid cooling your cup of coffee.
Finally, a quick chat about light roasts: the Cafelat Robot espresso maker can undoubtedly do a fine job of extracting a light roast, especially given its pressure profiling capabilities. But be prepared to put in slightly more work. Light roasts are denser and harder to extract, so they are typically given a finer grind and brewed at a higher temperature. So, in this case, you probably will want to pre-heat all the Robot components. Additionally, be aware that the finer grind means you’ll need a bit more muscle to pull the shot.
Cleaning and Maintenance – 5/5
A rare 5/5 score here because there is nothing to fault in this category.
As compared with an automatic espresso machine, cleaning and maintaining the Robot is a piece of cake.
After brewing, slowly press the levers down to get the rest of the water out of the basket. Or, simply remove the basket and decant any excess water into the sink. Remove the dispersion screen, then knock the puck into your knock box or garbage. The puck pops easily out of the well-made baskets, leaving minimal residue. Just a quick rinse of the basket and screen, and you’re ready to go again.
If you’ve used a softer pressure profile, you might have a bit sloppier of a puck than you would with an automatic machine with a 3-way solenoid valve, but it’s still nothing worth complaining about. After cleaning out the basket, it’s as simple as a quick wipe of the machine’s base and the bottom of the piston. There is nothing to maintain on this machine as the design is so simple and the components so well made.
This is in stark contrast to electric machines with groups and boilers, where you need to worry about backflushing and managing scale build up.
Build Quality – 4.5/5
The Cafelat Robot is very durable, which is no surprise given that it has so few components compared to a traditional espresso machine. Each Robot is hand built and thoroughly tested before it leaves the factory.
The base and body are made from die-cast aluminium, which feels sturdy while not being quite as weighty as stainless steel. The remaining parts — the portafilter, filter basket, dispersion screen, and lever arms — are all stainless steel. This machine contains no plastic and has very few breakable parts.
The most fragile material involved is the FDA-approved silicone which is used for the drip mat on the base, the gasket, and the piston seal. Silicone is a smart choice because it is water resistant and, crucially, not sensitive to changes in temperature. However, if you do manage to damage the gasket or seal, you’ll be happy to know that back-ups of these parts are provided with every purchase.
One possible fault point is the dispersion screen. This is inevitable as screens, by definition, need to be thin and full of holes. So you do run the risk of bending or warping it if you press too hard trying to get the last drops of water through. As of 2021, Cafelat has added a small rubber tip that is supposed to prevent bending, but I would still treat the screen as the most delicate part of the whole operation. Fortunately, if you do damage your screen, they’re sold individually and are inexpensive to replace.
As I already mentioned, the portafilter is the commercial standard 58 mm diameter, which comes in handy when purchasing accessories like a tamper. That said, the Robot is sold with a nice heavy metal tamper that is well suited to the extra deep baskets.
The included filter basket is a single wall basket, which is necessary for pulling the most delicious shots of real espresso. However, it does require that you also have a decent grinder or access to coffee that has been properly ground for espresso (8). If you prefer to buy pre-ground coffee that might be a bit coarser, Cafelat does offer pressurised filter baskets sold separately that will allow you to pull a decent shot even without the perfect grind.
Value for Money – 3.5/5
The Cafelat Robot is excellent value for money. The only reason it doesn’t get top marks here is because it caters to a very specific niche of consumers.
There is no doubt the Robot can pull a shot of espresso to rival machines many times its cost.
But it does require you to do all the work, in terms of heating water and applying pressure, and it doesn’t offer any means of frothing milk.
If all you want is an incredible shot of espresso, and you don’t mind the manual workflow, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value than the Robot. However, if you’re interested in milky drinks or prefer a more hands-off morning routine, you can find better ways to spend your money.
The main competitor to the Robot is probably the Flair espresso maker, so I think it’s worth making a brief comparison. The Robot is a bit more expensive than the Flair Pro, but it avoids two primary user complaints with the Flair.
- First of all, the Flair has a significant thermal mass in the brewing chamber, requiring the extra step of pre-heating all the components.
- Second, the Flair Pro is not the standard 58 mm diameter, making it challenging to buy accessories.
The newly released Flair 58 solves both these problems, but it is pricier than the Robot (9). Another obvious competitor is the Rok, which is also a bit cheaper than the Robot, but I would argue that it is significantly less refined in its design.
In general, one of the things that make manual espresso makers such great value is that very little can break. So not only does the Robot cost very little, to begin with, when compared with an electric machine, but it should also last much longer and require no expensive service.
Do Not Buy the Cafelat Robot If…
You like milky drinks: This is the obvious one. Sure, you can pair your Robot with a separate milk frother, but in all honesty, if you love a morning latte, you’re better off spending your money on something with a steam wand. Indeed, if you appreciate proper espresso, you probably also appreciate properly steamed milk, which you’ll never truly get from a frother.
Unfortunately, this requires you to up your budget significantly if you still want a great shot of espresso. Both the Bezzera Strega and Profitec Pro 800 are lever machines with steam wands, but they are easily 5 or more times the cost of the Robot. Alternatively, you can opt for a compact semi-automatic machine like the popular Lelit Mara or Rocket Appartamento, which are more on the order of 3 times the cost.
Another great option is the Breville Bambino Plus. You’ll lose a bit in coffee quality as compared with the other options, but it’s an automatic espresso machine for about the same cost as the Robot. For latte and cappuccino lovers, it offers an exceptional automatic milk frothing system.
You want something more portable: The Cafelat Robot doesn’t require a power source, making it technically a portable espresso maker. But it certainly hasn’t been designed for that option. The Flair espresso maker, on the other hand, was built with portability in mind. It disassembles quickly and is even sold with a nice little carrying case.
If you’re looking for something even more travel friendly, for a camping or hiking trip for example, there are plenty of smaller and lighter options, though they won’t produce the same quality of shot. Take a look at the Wacaco Nanopresso, Oomph 2.0, or the underrated UniTerra Nomad
You want something with a boiler: If needing a separate kettle to boil water for your espresso seems like a hassle, or if manoeuvring small metal cups full of boiling water first thing in the morning before you’ve even had coffee seems like a recipe for disaster, I understand. The Robot is not for you. Luckily, there are some relatively affordable manual espresso machine options that keep the boiler but still lack a pump.
Italian brand La Pavoni has been around for decades, and their reputation is largely built on their gorgeous and durable lever espresso machines. Two of the most popular are the Europiccola and the Professional, which are essentially the same design except that the Professional has a larger capacity. Both include a small single boiler for heating the water, making for a simplified workflow as compared with the Robot.
If you’re looking for truly delicious espresso that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for — and you have no interest in milk-based drinks — the Cafelat Robot is the machine for you. It can pull a shot of espresso to rival any high-end domestic machine at just a fraction of the cost, provided you are willing to do some of the work.
- Caffeine Magazine. (n.d.). The fall & rise of the lever espresso machine. Retrieved from https://www.caffeinemag.com/articles/the-fall-rise-of-the-lever-espresso-machine
- International Communicaffe. (2018, May 22). New espresso manual coffee maker launched with Kickstarter campaign. Retrieved from https://www.comunicaffe.com/new-espresso-manual-coffee-maker-launched-with-kickstarter-campaign/
- Bryman, H. (2017, July 13). Cafelat Robot Espresso Maker to Blast Off Later This Year. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2017/07/13/cafelat-robot-espresso-maker-to-blast-off-later-this-year/
- Danish Design Review. (2015, September 10). Ten Principles of Good Design. Retrieved from http://danishdesignreview.com/blog/2015/9/10/ten-principles-of-good-design
- Korhonen, J. (2019, July 22). Creating the Perfect Espresso Recipe. Retrieved from https://www.baristainstitute.com/blog/jori-korhonen/july-2019/creating-perfect-espresso-recipe
- Grant, T. (2020, July 29). How Flow Profiling Affects Espresso Extraction. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/07/how-flow-profiling-impacts-espresso-coffee-extraction/
- McKeon Aloe, R. (2020, March 21). Pressure Pulsing for Better Espresso. Retrieved from https://towardsdatascience.com/pressure-pulsing-for-better-espresso-62f09362211d
- Grant, T. (2021, May 17). Grinding for espresso at home. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2021/05/grinding-for-espresso-at-home/
- Bryman, H. (2021, March 19). Flair Espresso Reveals the Flair 58 with Full-Size Heated Group. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2021/03/19/flair-espresso-reveals-the-flair-58-with-full-size-heated-group/