This is an updated review after 9 months with my Expobar, now that I'm an expert, haha.
WHY THE EXPOBAR?
My Krups 988 thermobloc had packed in after 8 years and it was time to get a new machine. The Giottos looked fantastic, but the single boiler Venuses and Sylvias had the right price. The usual dilemma. It was actually Mrs Baldryk who convinced me that there is no point in spending money for only half an upgrade, and that if I wanted a heat exchanger machine, then that’s what I should get. Fortunate then, that I happened across the Expobar, at only twice my original budget.
I have not used any other HX, so cannot compare. All I can say is that the Expobar makes consistent shots, whether the first one of the day or a load back-to-back for friends. And the ease of brewing and steaming means that I have not regretted for a second getting an HX over a single boiler.
The Pulser, which at the time of writing is the picture top left, was $50 cheaper, but the Leva looked so much better and that’s what I took home with me.
BUYING AND SETTING UP
Whilst not quite matching the sculpted beauty of the Giottos, Teas or Splendors, it certainly had a big, chrome, industrial, in-your-face look to it. A big block of stainless with a chrome e61-type group stuck out front. Proper looking ball-jointed steam and hot water wands, with big black knobs to work them. Commercial, heavy portafilter with double and single baskets. And the oddly long legs stopped looking so odd when the machine was on the kitchen workbench.
It was bloomin heavy, almost to the point of being too heavy to safely lift out of the car and up onto the workbench. Reassuringly heavy. It was fortunate that there was little more setting up to be done than filling the reserve with water and plugging it in, because the manual was singularly useless. I was as informed reading the Spanish section as the English, and my Spanish extends to buying bread and beer. Anyway, after filling the reservoir, noting the resin bead ion exchange filter, I switched on… and the vibe pump kicked in… ‘WHAT ON EARTH’S THAT?!’ Mrs Baldryk shouted across the kitchen. Mmm, I thought, this’ll wake the kids in the morning. A bit of consternation, but after sound checking it through other parts of the house, with the doors closed, I was allowed to keep it.
The Isomac Gran Macinino grinder that we already had was easily dialled in. The plastic tamper supplied with the Leva is a bit crappy and too small, so I’d advise getting a 58mm steel one. We ended up getting a Reg Barber white powder coated stainless, engraved with Mrs Baldryks company name. But it is a testament to the machine that I was making decent shots out of single as well as double baskets within a day.
Temperature is very stable. And I’ve stuck thermocouples up portafilters to find out. No temperature surfing required, just turn it on at least 20 minutes before the first shot, flush about 60 ml and away you go.
Within my abilities, it’ll make as many consistent shots in a row as I care to make. I’ll make a one or two 50ml double espressos each morning, and given the right beans these are rich and chocolaty with 30% red crema.
Plenty of dry steam too. The boiler is huge and the heater element copes well. So after the initial pressure drop it picks straight up and you can steam as much as you need and brew and steam at the same time if you like.
I struggled with microfoaming using the stock 2-hole tip, and got the one-holed Gold Pro equivalent from coffeparts.com. My technique improved, and I continued used the one hole until recently trying out the stock tip again. And the 2-hole microfoams fine, so it was my lack of talent all along. I reckon if you are steaming for one then use the one-hole tip, but two drinks or more and the stock tip does fine, only much faster. It also came with a 4-hole tip, which I have not tried but suspect would blow the milk out of my 500ml jug.
I like the lever brew switch. Looks cool and dead easy to flick up to pour. On flicking the switch down, the middle position actuates the 3-way valve to release pressure from the portafilter, dumping a few ml of water into the drip tray. The portafilter can be removed straight away, leaving a dry puck.
The hot water is good for long blacks or cups of tea, though needs to be left too cool or mixed with some cold water before dropping a shot onto the top of it. A minor complaint is the knob right over the stubby water arm. The steam from the cup goes straight up to your waiting hand.
The reservoir at about 2.6 L could be bigger. And with no external indication of fill status, you end up refilling when it’s still half full. And this requires removal of the lid and any cups on it. You can’t get into trouble, as the pump will not activate unless there is sufficient water to trigger the weight-sensitive switch, but it is a bit of a pain in the arse. If we’d got the Leva prior to putting the kitchen in then I think that we’d gave put the effort into plumbing it.
The drip tray is enormous. It gets emptied out of not wanting that much coffee dregs hanging around well before it fills up. The way it clips onto the machine is slightly annoying and fiddly. One of those things that needed another 5 minutes thought by the designer.
The height to the group handle is enough to fit pretty tall cups (if that's your thing). And if you were happy to have the bottom of the cup sitting in the drip tray itself it would fit a milk shake glass/Starbucks Venti cup with room to spare.
INSIDE THE MACHINE
The Leva is relatively easy to get into, but adjusting anything requires 5 bolts to be removed and the heavy steel back/side piece to be taken off.
The boiler pressure factory preset is 1.0-1.2 bar. To change the boiler pressure:
a) with the machine at operating temperature, note the boiler pressure and turn the power off. If you’ve got a Pulser not a Leva then you don’t have a boiler gauge, so, er, I don’t know
b) take the outer case off by removing the 5 cross head bolts at the sides and back of the machine
c) locate the pstat adjuster - the notched black wheel at back left (steam arm side) above the boiler
d) turn the wheel quarter of a turn anti-c/w to reduce, c/w to increase boiler pressure by probably about 0.1 bar
e) turn on (hands clear of internal wiring) and check the pressure.
f) repeat (a) (d) (e) until you are happy.
The brew pressure is preset at about 12 bar. I dropped mine to about 9.5 on the recommendation of others on this site. You’ll need some way of measuring the pressure, ideally a pf gauge. To change the brew pressure:
a) turn on, measure the brew pressure and turn off the power
b) take the back off as described above
c) locate the OPV – a brass screw at front right (water arm side) at the bottom of the unit – it has clear plastic pipes coming off it
d) turn the screw one whole turn anti-c/w to reduce, c/w to increase brew pressure by probably 1 bar
e) turn on (hands clear of internal wiring) and check the pressure
f) repeat (a) (d) (e) until you are happy.
Any other adjustments are beyond my capabilities, though I did wonder whether it would be possible to increase the damping on the vibe pump mountings to keep the noise level down.
RUNNING HOT, RUNNING COOL
Coffee was great from day one, however extensive flushing was initially required to avoid bitter shots. Expobar has a real quality assurance problem with thermosyphon restrictors. Don’t put up with it: get it fixed.
The principle of an e-61 group is a thermosyphon, which takes HX water through the group, and this stabilises the brew temperature. There is a restrictor that determines how much water gets through. Faulty/missing restrictor = too much flow = too hot group = too hot brew water = massive cooling flushes required or burnt coffee.
If you’ve got steam coming from the group, or a delay of a few seconds before water comes through (look for this with the pf off), then you’ve got this problem. I did, and I needed 300ml initial cooling flushes, with another 200ml before every shot because it was rebounding to ‘too hot’ within seconds.
It’s not just me. Simon James reported exactly the same problem and put me onto the solution. Read the forums and you’ll see people saying that ‘Expobars run hot’. Expobar Australia said that sometimes the machines had a restrictor dislodged in transit or even that they’d forgotten to be installed. They certainly don’t make the suppliers aware of this.
I dropped the boiler pressure from the factory set 1.0-1.2 bar to 0.8-1.0 bar. This reduces the temperature and helped out somewhat, and there was still plenty of pressure for dry steam. But there was still steam at the group and too much flushing required, so I contacted the extremely helpful Dean at Expobar Australia. He sent the supplier Aroma Fresh a restrictor and instructions on what to do.
(Tech note: If you want to do it yourself, the copper thermosyphon pipe goes from the top of the boiler to the group. Undo the last nut before the right-angle on top of the boiler and gently pull away the pipe, leaving the right-angle in place. The restrictor is the white plastic thing in that right-angle. There are two types of restrictor – Euro with a bigger hole, and the Rest of the World version that I got.)
The result when fitted? Sour coffee. It was too cool. I had to up the boiler pressure to 1.2-1.4, which is as high as it would go with the pstat wound until it would go no more. Here’s the bizarre thing: the temperature slowly climbed over the next couple of weeks, I reduced the boiler pressure back down, and now everything is just fine. Small cooling flushes only, in fact the pf rinse water is often enough, and then stable temperature for several minutes afterwards.