When you put a machine through its paces for almost a full six months over a one year period, you learn a lot. When you put it up against other machines during this testing time, you learn even more. It's safe to say, I've learned a lot about the Microcasa Semiautomatica from Elektra.
I need to start off by saying I'm really a kid-gloves type when it comes to handling the machines I review. I know that near the end of the review I will always need to do some extra photography work, so with this in mind I really try hard to keep the products as pristine as possible, at least in terms of the outside aesthetics. The Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica got exceptional handling from me - in fact, most of the times I had to move the product, I used cotton handling gloves.
That said, over the year + I tested this machine, portions of it didn't seem to stand up too well. Some things are inconsequential, like the big time discolouration that occurs in the water reservoir (reference the picture below). The reservoir is lined with tin (something to do with copper vs. tin - a balance brewer I have that is copper outside has tin inside), and the discolouration that came mainly from the lid (which is also copper, but not tin-lined) and water mixing it up should really have no effect on the brewed coffee and it is also hidden from view most of the time.
Scratches on the drip tray plate were plenty, and somewhat to be expected. I have yet to see any stainless steel, brass, or copper drip tray cover that doesn't get scratched from contact with porcelain. Fortunately, this is a relatively cheap fix (buy a new cover plate); unfortunately, finding a source for the new cover plate isn't so easy. A random, anonymous call to 3 different Elektra vendors turned up everything from confusion over what I was asking for, to the words, no, we don't stock it, sorry".
Scratches on the body work - that I had more of an issue with. The main base unit and other external parts of the machine are covered with a kind of clear coat; while this helps prevent smudges somewhat, it also is extremely susceptible to being scratched. I have a multitude of scratches, some very noticeable, on parts of the base. It's partially my fault - I was using the top of the base nearest the boiler stack as a faux "cup warmer", leaving porcelain espresso cups upside down and right side up for a day or two to heat up. Moving them scratches the surface.
Another area that seems to suffer a lot of damage, but is unseen most of the time is the surface underneath the removable drip tray. Corrosion got so bad that the copper was eaten away in some places. Not a big deal, but I wonder how it will look in ten or fifteen years.
Here's some good stuff about the cosmetics. The copper and brass "age" as time goes on, changing in colour, and the aging process is all good. The copper gains more of a deep "coppery" colour, and the brass seems more and more vivid. How cool is that you can have a machine that looks better as time goes on? (outside of the scratches, of course).
Other good stuff - the portafilter handle? It's such a dense wood, and so nicely finished, boned, and polished, that it looks as if it is brand new. It's poured probably 750 or more shots of espresso in its lifetime, but you'd be hard pressed to see it in the handle. The chrome portion of the portafilter has also come through well - perhaps the "rough finish" ended up preserving the life of the chrome, especially underneath where it constantly gets knocked against a chrome doser fork.
Overall, cosmetics for the machine come through well, but you have to treat the machine with a constant gentleness to prevent scratches, dings and such.
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| Reservoir |
Discoloration from the contact of a) tin, with b) water, and c) the lid's copper.
| Tray Scratches |
Evident from many a shot-pulling.
| Under Tray |
Hard to see here, but the discolored spots are actually the steel underneath. Copper's been eaten away.
| Scratches |
Marks on the copper base, from the occasional cup.
Maintenance, long term
I talked about how gummed up the grouphead can get in the previous Maintenance section and I'd like to expand on it a bit here. The design of the dispersion plate and the dispersion screen is nice, but there is a flaw - a lot of ground coffee can transport up behind the dispersion screen due to there being no real seal between the screen and the plate. They fit snugly, but the inclusion of a rubber gasket on the top side of the screen would be a boon, and would help keep the interior space between plate and screen much cleaner.
| Clean it! |
Maintaining a clean grouphead, dispersion screen and plate will not only prolong the life of the machine, but give you better espresso.
I also found that the entire grouphead area can get very, very dirty with much accumulated coffee grounds. More so than other machines I've tested. I can't explain this, but I can guess. The design of the grouphead and some free flowing area between the side of the dispersion plate and the filter basket allows for some trapped coffee that doesn't come out even during a backflush. I found that it isn't too big a deal - you just need to clean the grouphead about 1.5 times more than most other machines.
In the Maintenance section, I talk about cleaning regimens with this machine, but after long term evaluation, I'd change it to this:
After every shot: Portafilter wiggle (wiggle the portafilter loosely under in the grouphead as you run the pump) for a few seconds. Wipe the filter clean, put back in machine
Every day: A quick blind filter backflush sans detergent. Normally I'd recommend this every few days or once a week if you're only pulling a shot or two a day. With the Semiautomatica, once per day, five seconds on, five seconds off, rinse, repeat will do nicely.
Every week: Full backflush, with detergent. Normally I'd say every two weeks. We love Urnex Cafiza around CoffeeGeek for the amazing job it does with cleaning all our espresso equipment, and we recommend using a minimal amount (half a teaspoon) for this backflush. Unlike our other fave cleaner (Oxiclean, which is awesome on stainless steel filter baskets), Cafiza is perfectly fine around brass, chrome, and copper. Run the pump for five seconds, pause for fifteen, repeat four or five times. Rinse, then backflush again without detergent, 5 seconds, fifteen off, repeat five times, remove and rinse again. Continue until you are sure there's no detergent left in the system. Remember to empty the drip tray often.
Every two weeks: Full backflush, dispersion screen and plate cleaning, full grouphead cleaning. This is something I'd recommend once a month with other machines, but for the Elektra, once every two or three weeks would be better. Follow the backflush procedure above, then unscrew the dispersion screen, remove the nut, screen, and the plate - be careful, the plate is heavy and extremely hot. Soak all three items and your portafilter (stand it up so the handle is not in the liquid) in a bowl full of boiling water and about a tablespoon of Urnex Cafiza for about 30 minutes.
While it is soaking, take an old stiff toothbrush, a small bowl containing some Cafiza and hot water, and scrub the interior of the grouphead. Rinse it well.
After 30 mins, remove the screen, plate, screw and portafilter from your soaking dish, scrub any remaining dirt off (most of it will be a soft coating), and reinstall. Do some non-detergent backflushes to rinse out the group, and you're good to go.
Long term shot and machine performance
Another thing that seemed to improve with age was the Semiautomatica's ability to pull a great shot. It seemed that my shot making was more consistent and more tasty in the last few months of testing, and no, I don't "blame" this on getting used to the machine. But I do place a minor thanks on an increased cleaning regimen, tied in with the machine breaking in nicely.
| False Reading |
The gauge on the Elektra no longer zeros out, and reads about .4BAR when the machine is shut off.
One minor, but still important thing happened with the pressure gauge on the right side of the machine midway through testing. At some point between test sessions, I grabbed the machine from its storage area, and noticed the pressure gauge was reading about .4 BAR... while the machine was completely empty and powered off. I plugged it in, filled the machine up and powered it up, and noticed that the pressure gauge was peaking at just over 1.55BAR when running normally, a false reading of +.4BAR too high. Uh oh.
I could not figure out how to "re-zero" this gauge. It's a minor inconvenience, but if you didn't know it was stuck .4BAR higher when not running, you'd think you were about to blow the overpressure valves when the machine was running.
Perhaps there is a way to re-zero it, but I haven't asked the manufacturer or the supplier how to do it. I just got used to the higher reading, but during my test group sessions, almost everyone noticed it.
Overall, as a shot making machine, the Semiautomatica ranks easily in my top three of all home and prosumer machines I've tried. It's brother, the a Leva machine is also in that group. Other than the gauge issue, I've suffered no mechanical or operation issues with the machine.
Long term evaluation of reservoir temperatures
This one still stymies me. I've tested other machines that have gotten as high as 130F or higher (one went to 145F in the water reservoir) and to a one, they've had distinctly different shot performance when the reservoir water was hot (vs, cold water just added). Those machines produced shots that were bitter due to the excessively hot "starting water" for the boiler's heat exchanger.
The Microcasa Semiautomatica did not display this problem. Shots produced with cold (45F) water in the reservoir had no distinct difference in taste when compared to shots made when the reservoir temperatures peaked at 130F, under normal operating conditions (normal operation for me is to flush the heat exchanger of it's overheated water just prior to pulling a shot).
The only time I could discern a difference was if I didn't flush the heat exchanger prior to pulling a shot. The cold water brewing was still producing bitter shots, but slightly less bitter than the 130F reservoir water did.
The only conclusion I can guess at for this performance is that somehow, Elektra got their heat exchanger more "right" than other manufacturers. It is less influenced by starting temperatures than other machines are, including the Isomac line, Euro2000 machine, and the ECM Giotto.