Over the last few years, the upscale consumer market for espresso machines has seen a real upsurge in machines that were formerly reserved for the catering and light commercial use marketplace: the espresso machine with a heat exchanger (also known as a HX machine).
It seems anywhere you look online today, the discussion is about machines like the Pasquini Livia, the ECM Giotto, the Isomac Tea and Millennium, the Nuova Simonelli Oscar, or other similar machines. For the most part, these machines are durable, efficient, and produce results. They are also fairly new to the North American marketplace - the Pasquini is probably the oldest continual machine of the bunch, with the Isomacs only coming to our market recently, and the ECM very hard to find until very recently.
With all of this talk, there's a machine that is almost never mentioned, and it's ironic, it is a machine that has been available for almost 20 years now. It is also possibly the most beautiful heat exchanger espresso machine currently available for the home marketplace. The machine is the Elektra Micro Casa Semi Automatica.
Out of the Box
| Elektra's no nonsense shipping box, with handle. |
| Extra stuffing provided by 1st Line. Note, there's also a front side white styro piece, completing the coccoon. |
If you read my Detailed Review of the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, you know I'm a huge fan of the design aesthetics of Elektra products. The Micro Casa Semi Automatica (called "Semi Automatica" from now on in this first look) is a close relative to the a Leva version, at least in looks, but also in many of the parts used. Where there's a huge departure is the method by which water is forced through the bed of ground coffee: the Semi Automatica is a pump driven machine.
When I took delivery of the machine, I was again impressed by the weight. The machine is also packed very well, and arrived in perfect condition. Removing it from the box is a two person affair, so get a buddy to help out - the stuffing is pretty intense. Good thing too - there are portions of the machine that could suffer in shipping if not for excellent packing - the steam wand is especially susceptible to shipment damage.
The machine is a stunner. Absolute stunner. The only machine that looks better than this copper and brass heat exchanger machine is probably the all chrome deco version of the Semi Automatica, with the Mulino Glass ball on top (I like the chrome version slightly better because the top water reservoir is very deco-ish - it's a matter of personal taste). I'll go out on a limb here - this is probably the most unique looking heat exchanger, pump driven espresso machine you can buy for the home. Many of the machines I get to evaluate are great looking devices. The Micro Casa line is in a different class altogether.
What I love about this machine is that most of the plumbing is visible to you, making it "part of the show" as it were. The grouphead is away from the machine, polished, copper, and bam, just there. The solenoid system is above the grouphead, and the pipe that discharges the pressure build up goes right down to the drip tray, again very visible, very polished, and very impressive.
The water pathway from the top reservoir (the big dome thing on top) is on the right side, and you see it snake its way down to the base, where it disappears into the pump, which in turn feeds either the boiler or the heat exchanger, depending on which button on the front is pressed.
| Base of the unit (with the shallow drip tray). Power on the far left, "boiler fill" middle left, pump switch middle right, and boiler light, far right. |
Speaking of buttons, this machine has three. A power switch, a "boiler fill" switch, and a brewing switch. I'll cover these more in the First Use section below.
On the left side of the machine, two more pipes make themselves visible - one goes from the boiler stack (the brass central portion of the machine has a 2 litre boiler inside) into the base, and I'm not quite sure of its function yet. The other pipe comes up from the base to the grouphead area, and that's your hot water delivery for the grouphead and your espresso shot.
The grouphead itself is mounted on a plate connection similar to the a Leva machine. I'm not sure if water is actively run through this mount to heat the grouphead; I will check on this for the Detailed Review.
The portafilter is similarly impressive. It's the exact same portafilter that is found on Elektra's commercial machines, namely the Barlume. The handle is a polished African rosewood with a semi-gloss coating. The PF is heavy, and the handle is the new ergonomic angle, pointing downwards.
| Grouphead assembly with portafilter in place (notice etched Elektra Logo). The tube going into the drip tray is the solenoid tube. |
The base of the machine is a huge round plate of polished copper. The steam wand on the right side is also polished copper coated, with a chrome tip, the same quality tip that I liked so much on the a Leva machine. In fact, the steam wand assembly is identical to the a Leva series, except this one is copper instead of chrome. I assume the inside is steel, but I cannot verify at this time.
As previously mentioned, the top of the machine features a big 2 litre, all metal (tin plating inside, copper outside) reservoir, topped with a polished chrome lid and the famous Elektra Eagle on top. You will need to fill this twice to start the machine the first time - the boiler inside the machine holds 2 litres, the same volume as the reservoir!
Last, but not least, on the left side of the brass boiler stack is a sight glass for the water level in the boiler, and a boiler pressure gauge at the top.
Every piece of metal on this machine is polished, and coated with a gloss finish to help protect against scratches. This is especially important for a copper machine - copper is a very soft metal and scratches very easily. Still, I did notice some minor scratching (you have to look to see it) after a few days' use.
As always, I RTFM'ed (read the freak freak freaky manual!), and I always recommend this to our readers. Educate yourself - read the manual, and you'll have less surprises with a machine! I like to read the manuals while in the bathroom. It just makes me concentrate more on what I'm reading :)
Okay… maybe that was a bit too much information for a First Look.
The Elektra Semi Automatica manual is 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 Semi Automatica, 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 book - it isn't as "automatic" as some other heat exchanger machines - you have to manually fill the boiler (machines like the Pasquini Livia have water level sensors that will automatically fill and refill the boiler). 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 - it can take up to 15 minutes or so. Keep an eye on the boiler gauge, and when it hits about 1.1 BAR, the boiler will automatically turn off. Put a pitcher under the steam wand and open the steam valve - this will bleed off any false pressure, and get the boiler up to real temperatures.
Next, let's season the portafilter and grouphead. Refill the reservoir (it's probably near empty now), and run a few blank shots through the group. No pain at all here.
| This is the solenoid and water arrival area up top. Note pipe - that goes all the way down the the drip tray. |
I then set the machine up to pull its first few shots. The grouphead was still fairly cold (internally measured at about 70C at this point), so I ground up some coffee for some throwaway shots, but also to find out what kind of grind this machine likes.
The good news? This machine likes a very fine grind, a grind that would almost choke my 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 a Leva, but even more so with this unit, given that the solenoid pressure release dumps into the same shallow tray.
Note to Elektra SRL: 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 tasting shot. I was very encouraged by the thick, slow, and goopy (goopy is GOOD!) shots my throwaway shots were producing. I tweaked the Mazzer Mini grinder 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 (they supply a local café here in Vancouver, and I just obtained a pound of this excellent fresh roast).
That said, I locked and loaded, and waited for a boiler cycle (the boiler was on when I loaded, so I waited until the ready lamp on the lower right side of the base went off). 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. I know some say that tiger striping in the stream is bad, but I completely disagree with this. It's been my personal experience that tiger streams later on in the shot produce a superior shot of espresso. My theory on this is simple - if you're still seeing dark in the stream late on (along with lighter colours, hence "tiger striping", the coffee is still working overtime to give you "the good stuff".
The shot also tasted excellent. I was very impressed with this first attempt.
First Few Days with the Micro Casa Semi Automatica
As each day went on (I'm into day six with this machine as I write), I became more and more impressed with many things about this machine. I was neutral about one or two things, and miffed about one thing in particular.
Shot quality is first rate with this machine. The pump is very powerful, and seems better than my 2 year old Livia - much better in fact. I've fooled around with a few different filter baskets in the first four days, and like the La Marzocco double filter best - which is no real surprise - the filter holds almost 18 grams of coffee, and the Semi Automatica has no problems supplying even, strong pressure to it all.
Steaming performance is really good, and I would hazard to say even better than the a Leva machine (which was also very good). Elektra has completely nailed down the perfect combo of steam pipe and steam tip for these machines - the tip is smaller than the one found on most other heat exchanger prosumer espresso machines, and the steam pipe is a narrower diameter. This results in two things - first, it takes a bit longer to steam 7oz of milk than some of the other HX machines I've tried with smaller boilers, but and this is a BIG but, the machine produces nearly perfect microfoam, and can do it in under 40 seconds.
Being that it is a HX machine, you can steam and brew at the same time. Just be warned - most of the exterior surfaces of this machine get very hot, so be careful if you do want to juggle brewing with steaming to closely match the time you build a latte art cappuccino.
Latte art, speaking of that artistic thing, is very possible with this machine. The Semi Automatica produces microfoam almost perfectly, and certainly much easier than my Livia does. I had to change the steam tip on my Livia, and still is a challenge to produce good microfoam. Not so with the Semi Automatica. If you're into latte art, this machine is a champ.
There were a few things I was neutral on, to be polite. One is the lack of hot water on the machine. I say neutral on this instead of negative because at least you can quickly steam water up to boiling temperatures any time you want. Still, a hot water option would have been sweet.
Another is the handle angle. The ergo angle is great for commercial machines, considering the operating height these machines are usually at. At home, the group is usually lower, so the angle is a bit more of a challenge. Not very much, but enough to be noticed. I'm assuming that you will get very used to it where it becomes a non-issue.
Another "neutral" is the lack of an autofill system in the machine. It would be a nice addition if the machine could sense water levels in the boiler and automatically engage the pump and fill when needed.
One real negative for me is the drip tray. First, it's hard to actually remove - the plastic portion is seated in the base, and wedging your fingers to lift it out can be difficult, especially if the machine has been on for a while, and parts of the machine are hot.
Second, it's far too shallow. The pressure release system flushes into it, plus if you are like me and want to do the "portafilter wiggle" after each shot to clean the grouphead and dispersion screen, it fills up VERY fast. If Elektra ever considers modifying the Micro Casa machines down the road, the first thing I'd recommend is making that drip tray area at least twice as deep - maybe even 3 times as deep.
Remember, this collection of mumbo jumbo is just our First Look at this product, and anything and everything is subject to change, revision, reflection, or even retheorizing. Until our Detailed Review, nothing is definite in our crazy minds about this machine. That said…
Man, is the Elektra Micro Casa Semi Automatica one amazing machine. Normally I like to make my First Looks fairly humourous, but I couldn't do it with this machine - it's too damned beautiful. (I mean no slight to any product I do a First Look on and inject a lot of humour!).
Early on, I'm very impressed with the shot quality, which for most espresso aficionados is the most important thing. This machine ran through my remaining supply of Black Cat blend, and for the most part, each successive shot was better than the previous one. That's a very good sign.
Steaming was also very impressive, but I pretty much expected this. Elektra pays attention to the steaming systems on their Micro Casa line (more so than the Nivola, which needs some work in the steaming department), and if there ever was an Encyclopedia definition for "a pleasure to steam", the Semi Automatica would be in that definition, along with machines like the La Marzocco Linea and FB70.
I am so looking forward to the rest of this evaluation!