When it comes to the performance of the Nivola, you're dealing with a mixed bag of tricks, and the bag is weighed one way or the other, depending on what kind of machine owner you are. If you're someone casual about espresso, want it in the home, but occasionally, or aren't too fussy about it and want the "package" it comes in to be drop dead gorgeous, you're going to be extremely happy with the Elektra Nivola.
If you are a barista in training, know a good espresso from a not so good one, or want to hone your skills at things like microfoaming, ristretto pulling, and banging out successive shots, then the Nivola may not be the machine for you.
The following is a breakdown of various performance aspects of the machine - both good and bad:
Elektra's claims that the Nivola is very precise in the temperatures of the water it outputs are something we did note as being accurate. The machine is quite capable of maintaining good temperature stabilization between shots, or even between brewing sessions, no matter what the ambient temperatures are. How does it achieve this temperature stability? Not through a huge boiler (guestimated at around 250ml) - it does it through close monitoring of the brew water, and electronic "lock down" of the machine if it isn't at the precise temperature that Elektra has set.
| These red lights sometimes came on far too frequently for my liking |
The lock down that the machine goes into if you attempt to brew when the Nivola is not at the right temperatures is both a boon and a hindrance.
It is a boon because you know the machine is "looking after you" and can help the casual, newbie espresso drinker to make better shots, but for advanced users, you may get annoyed that the machine won't brew just because the water may be a little too hot (say after coming off a steaming session), or 1C too cold.
As for the brewing temperatures set at Elektra's factory? I believe they are set too low for North American tastes.
Using a highly accurate thermometer measuring device, I've measured 89.4C at the grouphead. That temperature is about 3 to 5 C too low for proper espresso brewing extraction, at least in this author's opinion, but also in the opinion of learned and quoted espresso experts. I'm not sure if this 90C setting is by intent, perhaps tuning the machine to Italian regional expectations, or perhaps something that was skewed by the 220V to 110V conversion, but it is something that needs to be changed.
If Elektra can easily change the brewing temperatures on these machines, I would suggest adding at least 3 or 4C to the output temperatures. It will result in a much better extraction, and possibly even a better ability to plow through a finer grind, giving you more extraction.
I should note that the machine is quite capable of producing great shots. But with this temperature setting, you're missing small traces of that "perfect extraction' ability that a 94C brewer (measured in the group, where the grounds are) can provide.
Elektra is using one of the newer (and more expensive) Ulka pumps in the Nivola, one that is supposed to be quieter. It is quieter than the pumps found on some of my other Ulka machines, but not as quiet as the leader - the Solis SL 70.
The pump is also slow. I'm not sure if it is because of flow restriction built into the machine (to control brewing temps) or what, but the Nivola could only crank out 49.5 ml of water in 10 seconds. By comparison, the Livia 90 can crank out 92.3 ml of water in the same time period. The Solis SL70 can produce 84.5 ml in 10 seconds, and the Nuova Simonelli Oscar can do a whopping 102.4 ml of water per 10 seconds.
While common sense says this should affect shot quality, once I had the machine for a month, I was pulling some awesome shots with the Nivola. I never got a "God Shot" level of quality, but I came close on a few occasions.
The main problem with the Nivola is that it takes longer to see the first bit of espresso pouring out, something I discussed on the previous page under Operation. On a Solis SL90, with a pressurized basket, typical espresso flow commences after about 7.5 seconds. On a Pasquini Livia, after about 6.5 to 7 seconds. I consistently measured the commencement of flow on the Nivola (ground version) to be beyond 10 seconds, with some finer grinds pushing it to 12 seconds or longer.
This factors into measuring your brew times. Where a perfect ristretto pull on a Livia may take 31 seconds from activation of the switch, it can take as long as 35 to 38 seconds on the Nivola, coming dangerously close to the 40 second automatic cut off built into the machine.
| The froth aider, in person. Click to Enlarge |
While it may seem I'm complaining a lot about the performance of various aspects of the Nivola, most of what I've already covered is trivial stuff, and mainly minor annoyances that only become apparent to more advanced baristas, or when one is doing this kind of detailed evaluation.
The steaming ability of the machine, however, is a major problem. The Nivola cannot steam well, and I believe this is the main Achilles Heel of the machine, something that Elektra should consider reviewing. The steaming ability may be barely adequate for newbies or for people who can't even figure out how to froth milk without a froth aiding device, but that's about it.
I've done some detailed measurements of the steaming ability of the Nivola. It takes the machine 76.8 seconds to steam 7 ounces of milk to 155F (enough for two cappas). The built in "panarello" attachment does indeed froth up the milk, but you get that big chiffon cream type froth that you can build sculptures out of - not the microfoam you need for authentic cappuccino froth and steamed milk.
The boiler's size (Dr. Fregnan could not give me a definite measurement of the boiler size; I guestimate it at around 250ml or smaller) has something to do with the lack of steam power, but also the method of activating steam may play a role. This is an all or nothing steaming device, you don't have the option of increasing or decreasing the steam pressure through the use of a steam knob.
| Nivola Boiler. A 58mm tamper is placed next to it for size comparison. Click to Enlarge |
I'm speculating with the following, but I'll guess that Elektra, for safety concerns, has some sort of limiting valve or device on the steam output - even though the boiler appears smaller than that on the Silvia, it is still larger than many other espresso machines out there, espresso machines that can easily beat the Nivola in the steaming department.
Whatever the reason, the Elektra is a lightweight in the steam department. This, along with the lack of a pressure release system, is the biggest drawback of the machine.
Portafilters and Grouphead
The portafilter is nicely designed and a unique handle shape, if a bit small. It is what you'd expect - a piece of hefty brass coated with chrome. It has a filter spring inside, and the grinds version ships with a dual spout on the bottom (the pod version ships with a single spout). The filters are 57mm, which means my "commercial standard" 58mm tampers don't fit the baskets. Elektra includes a tamper like most companies do, and while they do have a better quality, thicker tamper when compared to most of the competition, it still is plastic. I swear, it will make my year when I finally see a machine that includes in the box a professional, steel and wood tamper.
The grouphead on the Nivola does the job too - being directly connected to the boiler helps, and it gets hot enough with enough warm up time. The dispersion screen, despite its design flaw (hard to remove nut) does an excellent job of fully saturating the espresso puck, giving you full and complete extraction.
The pod version of the grouphead is likewise well designed. I stated previously this was the best pod-capable machine I've tried, and the design of the pod grouphead plates lends to this ability - the key to getting the best extraction possible from a pod (which still ain't saying much :)) is a snug and close fit between the dispersion screen area and the pod itself. The Nivola's ESE system does this well, and in a CoffeeGeek-sponsored test amongst 8 non-espresso drinkers, the Nivola-brewed pod shots were ranked highest overall.