Before I launch into this portion of the review, I need to stress that my initial days' view of the machine was almost a year ago now. As such I'm drawing primarily from the First Look to write this. If you want a more complete view of the initial days with this machine, I invite you to check out the First Look.
Out of the box
| Elektra Box |
The box is your basic brown cardboard with oldschool monotone graphics describing the box
| Cocoon |
The Semiautomatica is well cocooned in a styro box.
| Bubbles |
Inside, you find more protection including bubble wrap and plastic.
When the Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica first arrived, I was impressed with the machine even before it came out of the box - the weight was telling. The machine is packed well, arriving double-boxed from the supplying vendor. It's fortunate the machine is packed well - portions of the machine could definitely suffer, including the surprisingly delicate steam wand arm. Elektra takes care of this by also bubblewrapping the machine and including a form fitting styro outer cocoon.
Once you get the machine out of the box, you have to step back and give it a good gander. The machine's a stunner. In my opinion, there's probably only one other HX machine that looks better, and it's the art deco, all chrome version of the Microcasa Semiautomatica. I do think this is the most unique looking heat exchanger machine on the market today; while other prosumer machines can look good (great, even), the Elektra is in a class of its own. What sets it apart is the fact that most of the plumbing not only "visible", but part of the show as it where - everything's got a high polish and finish. One example is the solenoid discharge tube - it's right in front of you, curving from the top of the extended grouphead assembly, dropping right down to the drip tray.
I got the machine set up on the counter, and gave it a top to bottom look-see:
- Reservoir the thing at the top. Well, okay the eagle is at the top, but the reservoir is right underneath it.
- Boiler The big brass column that forms the backbone of the machine. It's not double walled or insulated - what you see is what you get - so don't touch :)
- Pressure Gauge and Sight Glass On the left side of the machine you get a very accurate* readout of the boiler's active pressure, including green and red zone indicators for optimal and "warning Will Robinson" states. Below that is a sight glass that shows you the current fill level for the HX boiler.
*caveat - the pressurestat gauge on the Semiautomatica went out of alignment (for lack of a better term) about six months into the test
- Steam Wand On the right side of the machine extends the fixed position steam wand arm and assembly. The simple control for steam is located on the top of this assembly.
- Grouphead and Solenoid Valve Right up front you see the grouphead which extends out from the boiler body, and a copper "cap" above it that houses the 3 way solenoid instant pressure relief system.
- Portafilter My understanding is that Elektra is now shipping the beautiful rosewood, polished portafilter handle they feature on their commercial Barlume machines, with all new Microcasa Semiautomaticas as well. In the past, you got either black bakelite or a ornate-cut wood handle (this may change though). The rest of the portafilter is chromed and solid, but the chrome finish on the portafilter is what I would call rough. It also fits in a La Marzocco grouphead, and the Swift Grinder from La Marzocco. :)
- Drip Tray and Pan This is a very shallow affair that has a brass polished tray on top. One of the serious dislikes we have in regards to this machine.
- Base and Controls The base of the machine is where the electronics, control switches, and additional plumbing goes. Polished, coated surface, with the power plug coming out at about the 10 o'clock position.
For me, the highlights when first viewing the machine were the overall look, but also the attention to details, including the polished rosewood portafilter. As mentioned above, this is the same portafilter found on Elektra's commercial machines like the Barlume. It has an ergonomic angle to it, and when tamping, the tip of the handle rests on the counter at the proper angle to leave the top of the filter basket dead-level - no more guessing at how level your portafilter may be when tamping.
Scanning the machine, you see the layout of switches, plumbing, and water intake and output. Up top there's the covered reservoir that can hold about 2 litres of water comfortably. It sits on top of the boiler stack, and to the right, you see the seriously old-school steam wand assembly.
The group extends out from the front of the machine, and has a series of pipes leading in and out of the top cap, which also houses the 3 way solenoid valve.
Underneath you have the aforementioned portafilter, with a dual spout and about 2.5 inches of clearance to the drip tray. That tray is shallow, holding a maximum of about 180mls of liquid before you need to empty it.
The base is big and wide, about 26cm (10 inches), and relatively heavy. On the left side, at about the 10 o'clock position, the power cord juts out of the body. Next to that, at about 8:30 o'clock, sits the power switch. Right next to that is the manual boiler fill button - this machine has no autofill capability, and you have to press and hold that switch to fill the boiler occasionally. On the left side of the boiler is a sight glass (with the pressure gauge on top) to help you maintain a good boiler level.
In the front of the machine's base there is the Elektra name plate, and to the right of that is a second switch - this one activates the boiler. Next to that, at about the 4 o'clock position is the boiler cycle light, which lights up red whenever the boiler's heating elements are active.
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| Front View |
The front shows all the controls, lights, portafilter, etc.
| Left View |
This side has the power switch (which lights up) and the manual boiler fill switch
| Back View |
Not much to see here. The boiler is single wall, and can get hot.
| Right Side |
This view shows shows the steam arm, the reservoir tube, boiler active light and brew switch.
As always, I preach that you must read the flickin' manual (RTFM Baybee!), and this is what I did before filling up and powering up the Microcasa Semiautomatica.
The Elektra Semiautomatica manual is actually the same exact manual that the a Leva machine uses - Elektra puts the instructions for all their "Family Retro" machines in the same big book - each machine, the a Leva, the Semiautomatica, the Mini Verticale (looks like a miniature version of the old time boiler espresso machines) and the grinders are all detailed in this book, in several languages.
One thing you learn off the bat by reading this manual - it isn't as "automatic" as some other heat exchanger machines. As I mentioned above, there's no autofill for the boiler, and you have to manually fill the boiler (machines like the Pasquini Livia have water level sensors that will automatically fill and refill their boilers). You have to do this for an especially long time the first time you use the machine, as the boiler requires almost 1.6 litres of water to start off.
Setting up the machine for first use is still pretty easy: fill the top reservoir, turn the machine on, and hold the left side "boiler fill" switch. The pump will turn on and the boiler will start to fill with the reservoir water. Keep an eye on the sight glass on the left. As soon as you start to see water in it (takes about a minute or so, though I didn't time it), take your finger off the fill switch. Then press it again cautiously until you see the water level raise to about 3/4 full. That's your sweet spot.
Next you wait until the machine gets up to pressure and heat - I measured the machine as taking almost 13 minutes to initially heat up. Keep an eye on the boiler gauge, and when it hits about 1.1 BAR, the boiler will automatically turn off.
The Microcasa Semiautomatica has an automatic false pressure relief valve, so there's no real worry about a false pressure build up while using the machine. Still, it's always good practice to put a pitcher under the steam wand and open the steam valve once the machine has heated up - this will bleed off remaining false pressure, and get the boiler up to real temperatures.
Next I refilled the reservoir and seasoned the portafilter and grouphead by running a few blank shots and a few "garbage shots" through the machine. This had several purposes - to fully heat up all parts of the machine, but to also get rid of any manufacturer oils and nasties that all new machines seem to have. I'd rather have coffee oils up around the gaskets and such.
| Drip Tray |
Tray showing signs of wear. But the real problem is the shallow depth.
| Shallow Tray |
This tray barely holds 180mls when filled to the brim, but you wouldn't want that much liquid in there - it's hard to remove as it is when half full.
Then I was ready for my first real shots. The good news? This machine likes a very fine grind, a grind that would almost choke a Pasquini Livia. This is good news because it means mucho extraction and lots of ristretto playing possibilities exist.
The bad news? Well, I discovered quite quickly how shallow the drip tray is. The same problem exists with the Elektra Microcasa a Leva, but even more so with this unit, given that the solenoid pressure release dumps into the tiny drip tray. Elektra, one day you need to retool the base on these machines to double or even triple the drip tray size.
I was then ready to pull my first taste shot. I was very encouraged by the thick, slow, and goopy (goopy is GOOD!) shots my throwaways were producing. I tweaked the Mazzer Mini grinder (the grinder I first tested this machine with) a bit to see if I could pull a decent ristretto for my first real shot, and set it up.
Before I talk about the shot, here is my set up. I ground fine enough on the Mazzer Mini to choke the Pasquini Livia. I was using Elektra's stock 58mm double filter that came with the machine. I measured the grinds to hold about 16.5 grams tightly packed. I tamped with roughly 30lbs of pressure using a curved bottom all steel 58mm tamper. I used the extremely capable Black Cat blend coffee from Intelligentsia Roasters out of Chicago (Black Cat and Intelligentsia's coffees are now used exclusively for all CoffeeGeek tests, to help minimize one of my testing variables).
I ran the pump sans portafilter in place for a few seconds to get rid of the overheated water that was sitting in the machine's heat exchanger, locked and loaded and waited for a boiler cycle (the boiler was on when I loaded, so I waited until the ready lamp went off, located on the lower right side of the base). Then I pressed the brew switch.
The shot looked great - the streams were even, very thick, started off a deep, rich brown-red, and slowly morphed into a superb tiger mottle/flecking in the streams and in the cup. The shot also tasted excellent. I was very impressed with this first attempt.
Over the course of the first week, I was enjoying my use of the machine. I did find the lack of a hot water delivery option annoying since my second favourite beverage (after an espresso) is the americano, but I found I could flash-heat about 4 or 5 oz of water using the steam wand quickly enough.
I also found the machine was generally "forgiving" of how I packed my coffee and how much ground coffee I used. I'd have to investigate this more as the testing went on.
One aggravation that I had during this first week, and indeed, one that would not leave me during the entire review was how tiny the drip tray is. Elektra really needs to address this problem. With a retooling of the base, they could easily have 3 or 4 times the waste space available below the spouts.
I also came to appreciate the Elektra Semiauto's steaming ability. It's no speed champ, but the tiny jets of steam can definitely do some quality microfoam, with a full, turbulent action in the steaming picture.
All in all, my first week with the Microcasa Semiautomatica was a fun one.