The Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica is a daunting machine to look at, and it literally scares some potential users off - very technical, very mechanical... give me a super auto instead, please.
But the fact is, it's a very easy to operate machine - as easy as any other heat exchanger espresso machine. It may share much of the look of its sibling, the Microcasa a Leva, but very little of the user-complexity required.
Standard operating procedure
The Elektra is a machine you can leave on 24 hours a day should you choose to do so, but you will have to deal with the following issues if you do:
First, the reservoir water gets hot. In other machines I've tested this has become a problem - pressurestats were tuned to heat the boiler to a point where cold or room temperature water would be heated up to about 204F max, or less, for brewing. If the water starting temperature was hotter (say 130F instead of 50F), brewing water might be too hot. Heat exchangers were designed to always receive the same temperature water from a "plumbed in" line - be it 50F, 60F, 72F, whatever - they were designed to have a stable temperature intake. Built in reservoirs take away this stability, and turn it into an ever-changing variable. This is a changing variable becomes a detriment in many heat exchanger machines.
But on the Elektra the reservoir water, while indeed getting up to 130F after about five hours, doesn't seem affected by this change in temperature - shots pulled with cold reservoir water (55F) had no noticeable difference when compared to shots brewed with heated reservoir water (130F). I'm still trying to figure this out but suffice to say is this: you can leave the Elektra on 24 hours a day, and you don't need to overly worry about how the reservoir temperatures affect the resulting shots.
Second issue with leaving it on 24/7: the machine has no automatic fill function for the HX boiler. You have to remember to check the site glass level every day, and manually press and hold the boiler fill button so the boiler is running at about 3/4 full. On the site glass, this would mean approximately 1 to 1.5 inches of empty tube at the top.
Other than that, the machine can be left on indefinitely. But this section is about standard operating procedure, so I'll cover everything from powering up to using the machine on a daily basis.
First, make sure there's adequate water in the machine's reservoir - I like to keep it about half full, or about a litre of water in there. It allows me to add fresh water every day, something I like to do with any reservoir-based espresso machine. If you have never plugged in the machine before, be warned it will drain about one and a half litres of water from the reservoir the first time you fill the boiler. Turn the machine on, and manually press the boiler fill button, and hold it. You'll be there for a while if the boiler happens to be empty. You'll let go quick if the boiler already has water in it. Watch the sight glass.
Let the machine heat up. In five tests, I found the machine reached the following states in these average times:
Time to false pressure valve closing (this prevents the boiler from heating up with a false pressure): 9min, 34 sec.
Time to boiler ready (cycling indicator light turns off): 12min, 51 sec.
Time to machine ready to brew, no pump running (this test measures the grouphead temperatures, and ends when the grouphead reachs 155F without running any brew water through the group): 31min, 55 sec.
Does this mean you need to wait at least 32 minutes before you can brew a shot? Of course not, but the machine is not ready after 13 minutes either - the grouphead isn't hot enough. You can remedy this by running a lot of water through the brewing group - put the portafilter in place, put a small bowl underneath, and run the brew pump for half a minute or so. Let the machine recover, run another 5 or 6 ounces through, and the group should be up to about 180F or higher - good to go, as the Nascar goodoleboys say.
It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway - always leave the portafilter attached to the machine when you're not using it.
When operating the Semiautomatica, I've noted two problems. First, there's no hot water tap - that means if you want americanos, you have to either boil water with a kettle, or boil water using the steaming wand.
Second, the drip tray is almost embarrassingly (for Elektra) too shallow. At its max capacity, it holds 180ml (6oz), but if you let it get that full, you will definitely spill some removing the tray from the machine. Basically, you need to empty the tray every shot or two, and if you do the "portafilter wiggle" (more on this in the maintenance section) after each shot, you may want to empty the tray after each shot. This turns out to be the machine's biggest flaw (which isn't so bad, when you think about it).
Let's assume the machine is fully heated up and you're ready to brew an espresso shot. The procedure is simple.
- Remove the portafilter, hold it under the grouphead, and run an ounce or so of brewing water onto it (press the brew switch on, then off). This gives an extra jolt of heat to the portafilter.
- Grind, dose your coffee into the portafilter, then tamp using a 58mm tamper. You can use the Elektra supplied one, but it's mickymouse and cheap - if you bought a $1300 espresso machine, splurge on a nice $40 tamper that fits.
- Before placing the portafilter back in the machine, run the pump (collect the water coming out of the group in your espresso cups to preheat them). You'll note the water is hissing - this is too-hot water that's been sitting in the heat exchanger, and has stabilized in temperature with the boiler - water that was as much as 245F. After a few seconds, the water will stop hissing, and flow normally. This is the water temperature you want. Stop the pump and quickly insert the portafilter.
- Press the brew switch again right away, even if you don't have cups under the spouts yet - you'll have four to six seconds to get them under the spouts. It's all about timing. I found I can quickly dump the water from my preheated espresso cups and give them a quick dry wipe with a bar cloth before placing them under the spouts. You can too, with minor practice.
- Produce the brew for 25-30 seconds. I'm a firm believer in a 25 second double shot (2 ounces brewed), or a 27 to 30 second ristretto (1oz brewed). I consider a shot a failure if I get more than either of these volumes in less than 25 seconds, but this is, of course, just a suggested brewing time depending on your shot type.
- Turn off the pump when your shot is done. The 3 way solenoid will do its job, removing pressure from the grouphead immediately.
- Remove your shot, drink or first remove the portafilter, dump the spent grounds, clean the grouphead with a portafilter wiggle, reinsert, then drink.
It's just that simple. Just like any HX machine.
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| Brewing a Shot |
The Elektra Semiauto ready to brew.
| Shot Starts |
Starting, the streams are even and thick, with tiger striping
| Colour` |
The colour remains good through the shot
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| 27 seconds |
27 seconds in, the shot is starting to blond.
| Finished |
Shot finishes up in about 28 seconds
| Good colour |
The finished shot exhibits good colour with some tiger spotting.
For cappuccinos and lattes, this machine has the ability to brew and steam at the same time, so you would follow the above procedure, then steam your milk. Steaming is a rather unique experience on the Semiautomatica. You will definitely get a swirling, turbulent motion in the steam pitcher, but it isn't a speed demon (you would think it was, with the turbulence witnessed in the pitcher). I'll cover more about the steam wand's abilities and performance in the appropriate section.
I prefer using a 12oz pitcher vs. the more industry standard 20oz with the Elektra. I find I can get about 7oz of milk (enough for two cappuccinos) almost perfectly microfoamed and up to 155F in about 30 seconds or so. You can use a 20oz pitcher if you like, but steaming times are longer, and the wand is a bit short for larger pitchers.
Usability of the Elektra
This machine doesn't present any serious usability challenges, but some operations take a bit more care and attention than other machines might require.
A lot of the testers found that inserting the portafilter in this machine was a challenge. The gaskets in the grouphead are still very tight to this day after all our test machine has been put through, and tightening the portafilter requires holding the base (the only surface that doesn't get too hot). For me, inserting the portafilter became "natural" after a while, but I could see many of the enlisted machine testers struggling with this.
Also, the base tends to slide around a lot on the counter. This is easily remedied by putting extra sticky rubber pads or "feet" on the bottom of the base (these can be bought from office supply stores). Still, Elektra would do good to put some good anti-sliding rubber feet on the bottom of the machine. I put six of them all around the base, and one in the middle and it works great.
As mentioned many times, this machine gets hot, and most of the plumbing is exposed - the boiler is not double walled or insulated, what you see is what you get, and exposure to these metals can lead to a slight singe of your skin if you're not careful. Exercise caution when handling or moving the machine, and avoid it if the machine is hot.
| Steam Wand |
The Elektra's wand is in many ways a perfect match to the machine's styling.
| Steam Control |
A simple ball valve (and the plastic cap that lets you turn it) controls steam flow to the wand.
| Tips! |
The three hole tip is small, but does the job!
There is a usability issue with the steam wand - the position on the machine is fixed, so you have to adjust and twist your body and "angle of attack" when you steam to fit the machine's angle for the steam wand. I found it wasn't much of a problem, but in our test groups, a couple of people complained about the positioning, angle, and lack of movement for the steam wand.
Tips and tricks
Here's a couple of suggestions to get the most out of the Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica.
- Dealing with a shallow drip tray: Whenever I'm running water through the machine's grouphead and there's not an espresso or cappuccino cup below the spouts, I put a shallow bowl (plastic) that I bought for $0.50 on the machine to catch the water flow. It's one of those Ziplock disposable shallow round containers. Catches the waste water from my portafilter wiggles and grouphead cleaning and the heat reduction trick.
- Short cup clearance: There's very little cup clearance between the spouts and the drip tray: the bottom of the spouts on the portafilter sit only 6.4cm above the tray - or about 2.5 inches. Enough room for espresso cups, a tight fit for cappuccino cups, and not much luck for anything larger.
Solution? Because the spouts are "open" on all sides (there's no box around it or back splash guard, or large overhanging portion of the machine), you can easily tilt some taller glasses so they can sit under the portafilter spouts, but a portion of the cup extends higher than the spouts. Or you can buy big and wide cups. But you 16oz latte lovers are SOL, and I don't feel sad for you :)
- Clean that wand! Steam wand should always be cleaned right after steaming, including a "flush" of the wand (opening the steam valve after you're done frothing your milk, so any excess milk is sprayed out of the wand), but it is especially crucial with the Elektra Microcasa machines for two reasons. First, there's no real prevention built into the steam wand assembly to prevent milk from entering the boiler through reduction of temperatures (as the wand gets cold after use, a vacuum of sorts is formed inside, and milk could contaminate the valve and eventually get into the boiler).
Because of this, you want to make sure you flush out the steam wand immediately after each use. Second, the wand is usually brass or copper lined, which is more susceptible to dulling and discoloration than chrome - letting milk dry and crust on the wand will degrade the appearance and lifespan of the assembly. So keep it clean!
- The "feel" of the brew button: It takes a bit of getting used to the feel of the brew and boiler fill buttons because of the soft plastic cap on both (as my test groups pointed out)... you're not sure if they are completely pressed in or not. Once you do get used to the operation, you'll find that you don't have to completely press in the brewing button to activate the pump. This is useful, because you can quickly run an ounce or two of water through the group without fully pressing the button, making it easier to do normal maintenance. Practice!
- Hot water trick: The machine has no hot water tap, but you can get near boiling water for your americanos - use the steam wand! Half fill a steaming pitcher with water, and use the wand to heat it up. Be warned, it can get noisy, but I've found that the Elektra can get water to boiling in a short time, giving you hot water for tea or my fave, americanos.