The Elektra Micro Casa is another machine that to main represents the "old school" of espresso technology. Here's an interesting factoid. Elektra has been making the technology built into the Micro Casa a Leva since the late 1940s, when it was based on one of the "quantum leaps" in espresso technology of the time - the original Gaggia spring piston lever machine, the first espresso machine to provide high (7+BAR) pressure on a reliable basis in cafes and commercial settings. The spring lever piston was revolutionary in the world of quality espresso, and Elektra (then called La Tarvisium) was one of the forefront companies developing this technology. The equipment worked, and it has continued producing espresso the same way, right up to today.
History of Elektra and the Micro Casa series
| The original workshop, in 1947. Click to enlarge. |
| La Tarvisium 2 group machine, 1950. Click to enlarge. |
note, some of this history is based on correspondence I've had with Dr. Federico Fregnan of Elektra SRL)
Elektra was founded by Umberto Fregnan in 1947 in Treviso, Italy, under the name of La Tarvisium, which was also the name of the first commercial machine produced by the company. It was a spring lever espresso machine, two groups, designed for cafe use. This machine is in many ways the foundation for how the Micro Casa machine works. The La Tarvisium used similar technology, in that it was a spring lever machine.
In the early 1950s, Elektra experimented with various hydraulic espresso machines to bring more consistency to high pressure espresso, but the lever and spring design proved solid and more viable, and with its continued production run of the lever machines, Elektra became known as a small espresso machine company that produced beautiful and highly functional products.
Beauty was always a driving force with Elektra, and to this day they make some of the most aesthetically pleasing machines on the market. The Elektra Nivola, for example, is a strikingly good looking, unique machine design. The other machines in the Micro Casa series, notably the Micro Casa Semi Automatica and Mini Verticale, are literally museum quality machines, while remaining fully functional (and of course, available for purchase).
The commercial machines, including the Barlume (designed to look similar to Elektra's first machine, but also to mimic the look and style of any 1950s style machine, while using state of the art components) and the Belle Epoque (which mimics the look but not the original function of the original "espresso" machines from 1910 and 1920) are designed not only to be highly functional, but also are literal centerpieces for a "high art" cafe or restaurant. Other companies may indeed produce "better" machines, but few if any make more beautiful machines.
| First Generation of the Micro Casa, circa late 1960s. Hasn't changed much, except for the piston group and a few style changes. Click to enlarge. |
The Micro Casa a Leva was introduced around 1960, around the same time as Pavoni introduced its Europiccola lever machine, but the Micro Casa had the early Pavoni beat - it was bigger, was a "steam on demand" machine, and featured technology that Pavoni wouldn't even begin to incorporate until 1974 with the launch of their Professional machine.
The a Leva machine has been changed here and there since its introduction. For instance, in 1980, they changed the piston group on the machine. It used to feature a proprietary spring-loaded group that operated with a gear-tooth mechanism. Complaints about the spring and especially the weakness it had in the last quarter of travel, as well as the noise it produced convinced Elektra to change the group to one made by Rossi with much better overall travel, and a stronger, extremely quiet spring.
To this day, Elektra, headed by Dr. Federico Fregnan, seeks a mission to balance quality espresso mechanics with drop dead gorgeous looks, and in almost all cases, they succeed quite well at this.
Out of the Box
When we took delivery of our Micro Casa a Leva, it came complete with Elektra’s optional aluminum carry case, which just exudes luxury and style. It is very similar to the expensive cases used to transport delicate photography and film equipment, and the attention to detail that this company shows in its products is also evident in this aluminum case.
Inside this $200 optional case sits the Micro Casa partially disassembled. The lever, portafilter, second dome, measuring spoon, filter baskets and drip dray assembly all fit in their own little areas cut out of the dense foam inserts. The machine is heavy, coming in at over 11 kilograms (about 24 lbs) which is quite an amount considering that on machines like this, what you see is literally what you get - the boiler isn't hidden inside a box, it's there to see, as is the exposed group and other components. If this machine was built inside of a box like more modern espresso machines using a metal frame and other parts, it would probably weigh around 18 kilograms (about 40 lbs) or more.
The case and accessories boost the weight to around 18 kilograms, but the well designed handle and solid feel of the case make it easy to transport. The case is so beautiful though, I'm afraid to transport it, for fear of "nicking" it up.
Setting up the machine was easy - remove the main part, then screw on the brass and bakelite lever, lock in the portafilter, add water, place the dome on top, and you're ready to plug it in.
One thing I noticed when removing the Micro Casa from the box is that it is very bottom heavy - something very different than the La Pavoni Professional. Where the Pavoni would slide around and lift up with movement of its lever, there is no such issue with the Micro Casa a Leva. This is also due to the different way of operating the Elektra, which requires you to push down on a lever and then release - the La Pavoni requires you to lift the lever first, then push down. Still, the added bottom weight in the Elektra was a welcome thing.
The machine is fairly large, and photos sometimes do not do it justice. The base is 26 cm (10 inches) in diameter, and the machine is it stands 45cm (18 inches) high to the top of the dome and eagle, or 49cm (19 inches) high to the top of the lever. It packs a 1.8 litre maximum volume boiler (optimal operating volume is about 1.4 litres) and the machine draws a maximum of 800W, which is not too bad considering the amount of time it takes to heat up water to proper temperatures - it is no speed champion, but at 12 to 14 minutes, it isn't what I would consider excessive. Where some prosumer and catering machines may heat up in 3 minutes (the boiler), the rest of the machine would play catch-up, and not be truly ready to pour a shot for about 20 or 30 minutes, when all its components are sufficiently hot enough. The Micro Casa is ready to go almost as soon as the boiler reaches proper pressure.
Another thing I noticed after taking the machine out of its box was a common nitpick I have with several espresso machines: the positioning of the plug. On the Micro Casa, it isn't ideal, but it's not as bad as some other machines and grinders. The plug comes out of the base of the machine at about the 10 o'clock position, angled towards the back, and it is fairly unobtrusive.
When the machine is on the counter, it is very much the ultimate conversation piece, and no one has failed to notice it yet, even my very jaded “non-espresso” friends and family who often stop by. In fact, a family friend who doesn’t even drink coffee asked if this machine would become a contest prize eventually on this site - because he hoped to win it! Take that for what you will, but trust me, that says something about the looks of the machine.
| Dome with Eagle (my fave). Click to Big Size. |
| Dome with Murano Glass. Click to enlarge. |
The boiler is polished brass as is the lever, drip tray cover, and ball valve assembly for the steam wand. The rest of the machine is polished chrome, except for the removable “dome” on the top, which is polished stainless steel. The eagle is either a different type of brass or possibly bronze, and is very well crafted. The second dome I received with this machine is finished with a blue globe made of Murano blue glass, which is a rare and expensive glass made in Venice (more info on Murano glass can be found here).
I noticed a lot of fingerprints all over the machine (I suspect UPS, who didn't handle this machine very well in shipping it), but it was quite easy to clean off. The entire machine exudes a mirror finish that looks like it is made to last.
Elektra includes an good manual with this machine, one that covers all their Micro machines, including the semi automatica and mini verticale. I read through the manual extensively, because as we always say - READ the freaky manual (RTFM) - there's no excuse not to, except for laziness and a want of ignorance :).
Elektra's manual included some very common sense instructions on pulling a double vs. a single, and they solved a dilemma I had with regards to a competing product - the La Pavoni Professional. When pulling a single shot on the Elektra, you do the lever action once. But if you are pulling a double, you let the lever rise about halfway after starting the shot, then pull it down again to add more boiler water for the bigger shot. Cool - I couldn’t find this instruction in the La Pavoni manual, but it makes sense when building two espresso shots with the double basket.
The overall build and construction of the Micro Casa is absolutely first rate. In some cases, it puts the La Pavoni machines to shame. For instance, the portafilter has a 49mm filter basket like the Pavoni, but it is deeper, holds more coffee, and the portafilter itself has a proper retention spring for holding the filter basket securely. The La Pavoni Professional does not feature this kind of attention to detail.
The only real disappointment I had with anything on the Elektra was the very shallow and hard to pull out plastic drip tray. It seems to me they could have made this at least double its current depth. The way I pull shots I was emptying this drip tray every second or third shot, and lifting it out was difficult. I was also less than impressed with the supplied tamper, but tampers often an afterthought with any Italian machine.
Elektra does not include any real instructions on "flushing" the machine prior to first use like many other manufacturers do, but I decided to do it anyway. So I wiped everything down, cleaned the portafilter and enclosed basket, filled up the boiler, and plugged it in.
It took 13 minutes and 5 seconds to get a 3/4 full boiler up to brewing pressures, which is a fair amount of time - catering espresso machines with similar size boilers can get up to temp (in the boiler at least) in much shorter times (although they do need a lot longer to get the rest of the machine up to temperature). Having a draw of 800W in the 110V version is probably the main reason for this. Once the machine reached temp, I opened the steam valve to bleed off any false pressure, and ran through some brew water.
This is where I experienced something I already knew about the Micro Casa. Where the La Pavoni is a straight piston machine using your muscles to push the brew water through the puck, the Elektra is a spring piston machine, which means you push down on the lever to load up an internal spring, and you let go of the lever, allowing the spring to do its job of pushing water through the bed of coffee.
The spring loading is a bit of grunt work, but I found it fairly easy. Other testers, including people weighing 120 lbs or less found it much more difficult, so this is not a machine for people who might be "height challenged" or without the proper leverage strength. I don’t have any easy way to determine the exact pressure you need to exude on the lever, but it is a good amount.
Once I flushed the machine, I turned it off to cool, emptied the boiler, and refilled it with fresh water. Heat up time was more or less identical to the first try. One thing to remember about most piston machines... the brew water is above normal boiling temperatures (on the Micro Casa, it cycles to about 1.18BAR, which translates to roughly 254F or 122.5C) inside the pressurized boiler, and the design of the machines is such that the connector and grouphead are meant to act as a heat sink, cooling the water down before it gets to your ground coffee.
Eventually, the grouphead and connector heat up enough that their heat sinking ability diminishes greatly; this is why you get the best results from a piston machine if you brew soon after it has heated up.
| The bridge between boiler and grouphead acts as a heat sink; water travels a pin-hole to the grouphead. Click to enlarge. |
For pulling the first few shots, lever machines are quite capable, and the Micro Casa seems to do a much better job at "heat sinking" the brew water than my La Pavoni did. Even by the third pulled shot, I was still getting good results, and not much bitterness from too hot brewing water.
I cannot emphasise enough that even with the better heat sink abilities of the Micro Casa, these lever machines are very much "one trick ponies", and sometimes the first or second shot is the best one you'll produce until you've cooled the machine down and tried again. There are ways to overcome this somewhat in continuous use, and I will cover these more extensively in other segments of this review.
The Micro Casa's filter basket is 49mm in diameter, just like the La Pavoni model I tested (note, new La Pavoni filters are larger diameter with a recent redesign they've undergone), but the Elektra is deeper, and holds about 1.5 to 2 grams more coffee. The supplied tamper is a typical plastic cheapie afterthought, which I must admit disappointed me a bit with regards to Elektra - they pay so much attention to the tiniest details on the machine itself that the plastic tamper was more of a letdown than normal (when compared to other machines). A nice polished steel and wood tamper would add a total sense of "completeness" to this package.
My first shots were doubles. I pushed the lever all the way down, waited for about 7 seconds before I saw my first dribbles of liquid, then I released the lever. At about the 2/3rds way up, I pushed the lever down again to introduce more water to the grouphead, then let go of it again.
Out of the box and on my first use, I got an great shot from the machine. This was very promising, but to be fair, I did use first rate beans, and I had prior experience with knowing what grind to use, thanks to my previous testing on a La Pavoni. (to be fair to the Pavoni, when I first evaluated that unit, I used really horrible bean samples and preground - I used the best stuff out of the gate with the Micro Casa).
I pulled a series of shots, and found out that the "too hot" thing does happen, especially by the fourth shot. So I decided to let the machine cool down, refilled it, and tried it as a cappuccino machine.
Frothing ability is another area where the Micro Casa a Leva shines. I pulled a very nice double, about 2 ounces (60ml) straight into a cappuccino cup. Then, thanks to the "instant steam" nature and design of the machine, immediately began frothing my standard 7 oz (210ml) of milk. The Micro Casa's steaming tip is exceptionally well designed, a 3 hole pattern angling out, and even though it takes about 40+ seconds to steam 7oz of milk up to 155F (68C), the amount of turbulence and angle on the steam jets made absolutely perfect microfoam, and I was able to pour some crude latte art (ed.note: I was terrible at latte art until very recently; read my column on the subject and a visit to Cafe Artigiano for more information).
After my first use, I walked away from the machine not only impressed with how it looked, but also impressed with how it worked. Now it was time to really get down to some real business with this machine.
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| Front view - click to enlarge. |
| Right side - click to enlarge. |
| Back view - click to enlarge. |
| Left view - click to enlarge. |
| Top view - click to enlarge. |