We’re currently going through a renaissance for manual espresso machines. If you’re a true espresso lover (and not just steamed milk & syryp addict like most people ?), then you’re right to be excited about the development.
Manual espresso is fun, and the devices are very attractive price-wise compared to all the ancient Italian stuff. Also, you don’t have to worry about the hundreds of things that can go wrong. Electric espresso makers tend to be finicky.
In recent years we have seen a bunch of exciting manual espresso makers, all capable of making genuine crema-covered shots. There’s the Rok, the Cafflano Kompresso, the Cafelat Robot, and so on.
And, of course, there are the various Flair Espresso makers, which we will closely examine in this review.
Does it have what it takes to stand out among all the other cool machines? And which model should you get? Let’s find out.
What’s unique about the Flair?
The Flair Espresso Maker has gotten much attention since it was launched as a Kickstarter project in 2016. The mastermind behind the product is the Brazilian mechanical engineer Sergio Landau. After retiring, he started to tinker with the idea that eventually turned into the Flair.
Since then, we have seen a couple of different iterations of the Flair.
- The first one is called the Classic
- Then came the Signature
- And finally, the Pro arrived in 2018 (a Pro 2.0 was announced in late 2019, however)
However, they all build upon the same idea: Use a single lever to force water through a small, compressed puck of coffee.
When I encountered the Flair for the first time at a conference, I was initially turned off. The workflow seemed complicated and counterintuitive. Pre-heating didn’t sound like fun. At the same time, the handleless portafilter struck me as weird.
It wasn’t until I got the Cafflano Kompresso (which, in many ways, has a similar construction to the Flair) that I started to appreciate a more avant-garde approach to espresso. I loved that it was portable, and the shots were not bad.
Then Flair released their Pro model in 2018, with excellent features such as a pressure gauge and a bottomless portafilter. I kept hearing good things about it and eventually ordered one for myself.
I later talked to the guys from Flair about possibly using the standard portafilter and brew head with the Pro frame. It turns out this is possible. All you need is a plastic conversion ring that you insert in the portafilter base. Flair obliged to send me this so that I could compare the Pro and the Classic.
(Just so that everything is upfront: I did pay full price for the Pro. The conversion kit and Flair Signature brew head, on the other hand, I got free of charge)
Does it make authentic espresso?
Before we dive into the real review and comparison, let’s address some frequently asked questions.
- Crema? Yes, the Flair does make genuine espresso with crema and all. It performs well around 6-9 bars of pressure. Going even higher up is possible, but the company does not advise this.
- Difference in quality? There should be no quality difference in espresso between the standard and the Pro version. The company states this, and it’s backed up by my observation.
- Need a grinder? Yes, you need a proper grinder to get good results with the Flair. Most grinders under $150 won’t make the cut.
You should check out this relatively quick and simple video to get an idea of the workflow and the different parts of the device before we go into the next section of the comparison. Then everything will make more sense.
Other things to be aware of?
All the Flairs (Classic, Signature & Pro) have a lot in common. Let me tackle a few drawbacks with this kind of device in general before we dive into the more nitty-gritty comparison.
- Limited serving size: Unless you buy additional p0rtafilters, it will not be fun to entertain multiple people. With a normal portafilter, you can knock the puck out, brush off the basket, and dose and prep. This device is more for the lonesome espresso wolf. With the Pros bigger basket, however, you can make a pretty long shot that’s kind of shareable.
- Arm strength needed: It does require a bit more strength than I had imagined to pull down the lever. If you’re at 5-6 bar, it’s not a big deal, but at 9-10, it starts to become something akin to exercise.
- No lattes: I know you already know this, but just for the 1 % out there still wondering: There’s no steamer here. That means no lattes or cappuccinos. You’ll have to buy a standalone steamer if you’re into that stuff.
Flair Classic, Signature & Pro: Differences
While the Flair Classic and the Signature are more or less the same product (the difference is mainly down to looks), the gap between the latest generation, the Pro, and the original is more significant. In the following section, I’ll break down the pros and cons of each of these offerings
The main difference between the Pro and the Classic is:
- The size and shape of the basket
- The brew head
- The amount of accessories
That’s it. Well, of course, the Pro materials are much more luxurious, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to shot quality.
The pressure gauge is automatically included with all Pros. However, you can also get it as an add-on with the original device.
- Pro dose size: 18-22 grams
- Classsic & Signature dose size: 14-18 grams
In general, the sheer amount of upgrades and bundles is a little bit confusing with the Flair line-up. For their own sake, I hope they can streamline it a bit more.
All-metal Pro basket & dispersion screen vs. Signature basket.
Bigger isn’t always better.
The bigger basket is lovely to have; however, it’s not something of a deal-breaker for me. Usually, I’ll go for a dose of around 16-19 grams, no matter which model I brew with.
The Pro also has a massive brew head compared to its little brother (520 vs. 265 g). The idea is that more thermal mass increases temperature stability. This, of course, is the case. However, the more oversized brew head also requires more energy to be heated. It’s a considerable chunk of stainless steel.
At the beginning of my testing phase, I realized that many of my shots lacked some sweetness. Once I became more diligent about preheating, I immediately brewed improved espresso.
Luckily, there’s a preheat cap with the Pro, which is rather handy. The lid is silicone and easily slides onto the bottom of the brew head. Then you can pour hot water directly into the cylinder — no need to mess around with a bowl.
I did get better results when preheating twice.
However, with the basic version, I felt like my shots were well-extracted, even with a single preheat. Science seems to back up this thesis.
I used a brew temperature calculation model to investigate things further. It turns out that the difference in thermal mass between the two brew heads calls for rather different approaches. This shouldn’t be a big surprise since the Pro is almost double the weight. (This model doesn’t factor in the two respective baskets. Including this weight, the results would be even further apart.)
- The calculator showed that the first preheat would take the classic brew head from room temperature to about 73°C / 163°F.
Using water straight off the boil would still land me a brewing temperature of 89.5°C / 193°F according to the model. For a medium to dark roast, that would yield a decent result.
- With the Pro version, however, the laws of physics seem to back up the need for a second preheat.
One cycle will only bring the cylinder to 68.5°C / 193°F.
- This will not be quite sufficient. Your brew temperature will end up being around 85°C / 185°F
Conclusion: You can get away with pre-heating the Classic brew head once, but with the Pro, you should do it twice
Again, pre-heating isn’t as complicated as one might fear with neither of the versions. Even though the Flair Classic & Signature don’t come with a cap, but you can insert the piston to create a seal and then turn it upside down. Then, add boiling water and leave it to preheat while you dose and prep.
With the portafilter itself, there are some significant differences. The Pro is bottomless. While that doesn’t change anything in terms of flavor, it’s pretty awesome to see every little detail of the extraction process.
Flair just announced a new version of the Pro – the so-called ‘Pro 2.0.’ It has a detachable spout and a stable bottom that should be easier to prep and use.
The standard portafilter has a spout, and due to the plastic, it does feel quite a bit cheaper.
The portafilter I tested was the upgraded Signature version, where you can remove the plastic spout and brew bottomless. Even though it’s not quite as visible as with the Pro, you still get some visual feedback on your dose, prep & tamp. I imagine you could put a small mirror (or camera phone) at an angle to geek out and monitor every step of your extraction. You can also bend down and keep an eye on the basket, but that would make pulling the lever with the right amount of pressure more challenging.
The Pro portafilter has a bigger diameter, which makes it more like a traditional one. The Flair Signature basket is much deeper and more narrow than you’d typically see on traditional espresso makers. This means it’s easier to create pressure because there are fewer square inches. It also means that you can use slightly coarser grounds.
In my experience, these two side effects were positive. With the standard, it felt like I could use less strength when pressing down the lever.
I crave a delicious shot, not a workout, so for me, this was positive.
Using a coarser grind is not something that meant a great deal to me since I have capable grinders; however, some potential Flair owners out there might only have something like a Baratza Encore. I feel they can probably get away with using the standard with a grinder like that (you’ll have to do the espresso mod, though).
As mentioned before, you can get the pressure gauge for the standard as an upgrade.
The gauge was one of the things that convinced me to get the Flair in the first place.
After brewing both with and without, I can’t say that it’s essential to have. Once you have internalized the right level of pressure in your biceps and found the proper grind size, it shouldn’t be necessary to look at the gauge.
I have been experimenting a bit with pressure profiling, but honestly, my shots haven’t been better or worse when doing those kinds of things. There are already so many different variables with espresso (and coffee in general), so if there’s one less thing to think about, it’s probably okay.
Workflow with the Flair Espresso Maker
As mentioned before, the workflow was good with either device; once I had wrapped my head around the design. Honestly, it’s not much more work than an electrical espresso machine or using a Moka pot.
Both versions of the Flair have pros and cons regarding the workflow. The preheating is different, but I can’t say that one is better or worse. You have to be more thorough with the Pro brew-head, but since it has the silicone cap, it’s relatively easy.
Cleaning and knocking out the puck is simple with both devices, provided you make sure to squeeze out all liquid. After you have pulled your shot, just put in another cup, and press the lever again. That will leave you with a dry puck and a basket that is easy to clean.
I did have a few instances where the dispersion screen on the Signature version was kind of stuck, and I had to use the side of a fork to help lift it out. The dispersion screen, lined by a rubber gasket, is probably, the single part I dislike the most about the Flair Signature.
On the Pro, you get a more sturdy, all-metal screen that’s very easy to remove
Which one should you get?
Both Flairs make great espresso. If you’re up for geeking around, working on dialing in coffee, and so forth, you’ll soon get your head around the concept. However, it’s not a completely frictionless experience.
Brewing with a Flair Espresso Maker is not much more complicated than using a stovetop espresso maker. The main work lies in dialing in the grind, and pulling down that lever if the grind size is not perfect (It can be tough to pull down if you’re just a touch too delicate!)
Whether you choose the Pro or the Flair Signature should be a matter of your wallet and your desire for premium-looking things.
Yes, the basket and (especially) the dispersion screen on the Signature feel a bit cheaper compared to the stainless steel bonanza on the Pro.
However, the more elongated portafilter and the more shallow thermal mass seem to make everything a bit easier on the Flair Signature.
That being said, if you have a quality espresso grinder and the patience and desire to pull barista-level god shots, look no further than the Pro.
The Flair Pro and Signature are surprisingly similar regarding the resulting shots. The real difference lies in the dose size, the quality of the materials, and the ability to customize and tweak the details.
Espresso is a pretty expensive hobby, but combine one of these with a decent grinder, and I think you’ll get a very competitive package. Both in terms of quality and price.
At the same time, these devices aren’t only for people on a budget. If you don’t care particularly about milk coffees (or expensive repairs), this is the ideal alternative to the typical home espresso maker.
Please note, that a slightly upgraded version of the Pro has been released since this review. The Pro 2 has a slightly different basket shape and a handle with a rubber pad.