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the detailed review - elektra micro casa a leva
Elektra Micro Casa a Leva - Operation and Maintenance
Introduction | Overview | History, Out of Box | Operation Etc. | Performance | Comparisons | Conclusions
Closup of the piston lever

To a good extent, I've already covered much about how the Micro Casa a Leva operates in the Overview section, but I hope you'll bear with me as I expand on it a bit in this section, and also cover some tweaking techniques I've learned about this machine's operation and how to maintain it.

In the very simplest terms, operating a Micro Casa is very similar to other piston espresso machines:

  1. Turn the machine on, let it heat up.

  2. Load up the filter basket (only use the double), make it slightly heaping.

  3. Tamp down fairly hard, so that you have about a quarter inch of clearance in the basket.

  4. Lock and load that portafilter into the grouphead.

  5. Push the lever down slow and steady to load (or "cock") the internal spring

  6. Wait up to 10 seconds as you preinfuse the bed of coffee. Wait until you see some dribbles of brew come out of the spouts, or 10 seconds (with fresh roast, finely ground coffee, you'll almost never see dribbles), then release the lever

  7. If making a single, let the lever rise all the way up on its own. If making a double, at about 2/3rds of the way up, grip the lever and slowly push it down again to bring more water into the brewing chamber.

  8. Complete the shot, and enjoy. Note that my experience with the Micro Casa is that it only needs about 30 seconds before you can safely remove the portafilter - doing so sooner could result in a hot spray of coffee grounds from the instantly released pressure.

Operation of the Micro Casa a Leva

The above 8 steps are a very simple overview of how the machine works, and the Micro Casa is intuitive and easy enough to use that the above instructions could suffice. But this wouldn't be a detailed review if I didn't expand on how the machine operates.

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Filling the boiler. Note check-valve behind the fill hole, and the steam wand knob. No, I didn't fill with Perrier! Click to enlarge.

It is often said that lever machines should be run when 3/4 full of water, and the same hold true with the Micro Casa a Leva, with one notable exception: If you plan on doing two or three shots in succession, fill it up a bit more. This way you'll have less headspace at the start, and just the right headspace in the boiler at the end should you want to froth milk. When I'm doing a series of shots, I fill the boiler up so that the level is at the top of the sight glass. To fill the boiler, you simply remove the top dome, and unscrew a black cap made of brass and bakelite. While filling, you can see the pressure safety blowout device that also helps to equalize the internal boiler pressure while starting the machine up . Now I know why there's no mention in the manual about bleeding off false pressure!

Turning the machine on will give you audible crackles and action from the boiler. As mentioned before, it takes about 13 minutes to reach proper pressure. Even though it looks as if the machine has a boiler pressure check valve (above the fill hole - it bubbles as the boiler heats up, then seals at around 0.5BAR or so), I can't help but do an old habit - I always bleed some pressure off the steam wand at around the 12, 13 minute mark just so the boiler gauge has a super accurate reading.

I'm almost ready to pull a shot, but I do first draw some hot water through the grouphead by pushing down on the lever until water starts flowing. This gets the portafilter up to temperature. Then I remove it, grind and tamp.

Grind and tamp are absolutely crucial to getting a superior shot on this machine, something true with all espresso machines, but especially important with piston machines. It takes a month or more before you feel good about the one-two punch of grind and tamp and the Micro Casa. This time around, the learning curve was a bit shorter for me, than what would be normal for a new piston machine owner: I was coming from a couple of months' using the La Pavoni, so my transition was easier.

I did find that if I used the exact same volume of grinds as the La Pavoni, I would have to grind finer for the Elektra - the spring packs a wallop. But because the Micro Casa a Leva's filter basket is deeper, I could use the same grind fineness as the Pavoni used, because the Micro Casa's extra grinds slowed the water flow enough to compensate.

Another thing you notice about the Micro Casa - the group where the water enters is tall, and seems to hold more liquid than the wider (and shorter) La Pavoni Professional. I have no way of accurately measuring the grouphead volume on the machines, but visually the Micro Casa seems to hold more.

Pulling a shot is more like "pushing" a shot on a spring machine. You push down on a lever that cocks an internal spring. The spring's force is the equivalent of 8BAR of pressure, and that's what you're pushing down. This is where the lever helps enormously - if you had to direct push that spring into place, it would be impossible. The lever makes it easy. Still, shorter folks and people under 120lbs weight may have problems using the machine with confidence.

Observing these kinds of things on the machine help you get more in tune with the Micro Casa a Leva. I highly recommend you take the time to just sit and stare at it for a while, should you buy one. Look at how the parts interact. Use the lever while the machine is empty, and with a firm grip, get a feel for what kind of pressure is needed to smoothly and slowly push the lever down. Take apart the piston group (see maintenance below) and look at the beef behind that spring you're pushing.

Once you've cocked the spring, the next thing to do is hold it for up to 10 seconds, or until you see the first few dribbles of espresso. If your aim is a ristretto, chances are you'll never see the dribbles, especially if you use fresh roasted, fresh ground coffee.

The next step is to release the lever and let the machine go to work. And go to work it does - with a ristretto shot planned, the flow should be thick, slow and just shy of being a dribble instead of a flow. A "normal" double is more of a even flow of thick espresso, steady and completely crema-laden when you have your grind and tamp just right.

Continuing with the normal double, once the lever has risen approximately half its travel distance, you press it down again on it slowly to bring more water into the group. You can hear the flow, and once the noise settles, the lever is released again, and the machine completes the shot. If you're doing a ristretto, you could omit this second introduction of water - the group holds enough for a nice sized double ristretto.

After the shot is done, you have the seriously excellent convenience of being able to froth immediately should you want a macchiato or a cappuccino. Or you can simply enjoy the shot, then think about cleanup.

Because the Micro Casa a Leva has no 3 way solenoid bypass valve, or any other kind of pressure release system for the portafilter, removing it immediately after the shot will result in a spray of hot, wet grounds all over the machine and your arm. Dangerous stuff. But the Micro Casa seems to leech off the excess pressure very quickly - I found that I could safely remove the portafilter (albeit slowly) about 30 to 40 seconds after pulling a shot.

One thing you get used to quickly, but nevertheless is a departure from modern day espresso machines, is the angle that you lock the portafilter in the machine. The portafilter is placed loosely in the grouphead at a 90 degree angle from the machine (pointing straight out). You lock it to the right, so the portafilter is sitting at roughly 4 o'clock if you were looking straight down at the machine from above. Not a bit deal, but if you've been pulling daily shots on a Silvia or Livia, it may take a bit of getting used to.

Frothing with the Micro Casa is easy

Steaming and Frothing
Frothing is a joy with this machine. It may be a bit slow, but Elektra has nailed the design of the frothing tip perfectly. It is a three hole design, and the frothing pipe is a more narrow diameter than the one you find on most upper end consumer machines. The result is more channeled steam, and simply amazing microfoaming abilities.

The machine is ready to froth at any time because the boiler is sitting at 1.2BAR, or about 123C internal temperature, under pressure. There's very little wet stuff from the steam wand either - the access hole to the boiler is right near the top, on the side. To activate the steam, there is a ball valve controlled by a black plastic knob on the arm extending out from the machine.

The wand cannot move, which may prove a hindrance to some. For left handed people such as myself, you have to froth with the pitcher in your right hand, and it may take some getting used to. Also, be very wary of touching the central boiler tower while activating the steam - I have singed the sides of my arms a few times when I was less than careful.

The Micro Casa a Leva does not have a hot water option; however, having steam on demand means you can "steam up" hot water relatively quickly. One of my favourite drinks is the americano, and I can heat up approximately 4oz of water in about 35 seconds to boil with the steam wand, then pull the shot into the same cup that contains the hot water.

For tea drinkers, they can do the same thing - times for steaming 10 oz of water up to full boil range under a minute.

Step By Step Brewing with the Micro Casa a Leva
The following is a visual step by step guide to using the machine. You can click any image to enlarge the picture in a popup window. Cleaning "how to" is found in the next section.

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Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, cold, but ready to start up.
Add water through the top to 3/4 full (or more, if pouring multiple shots).
Screw the cap back on, make sure it is tight and sealed. Don't worry about excess water in the top basin.
Once the machine is heated up sufficiently, remove the portafilter. Note 4 oclock position.
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The portafilter must be pointing straight out from the machine to remove. Grip the lever for stability.
Remove the portafilter. Make sure it is dry. If you ran some water through the group, it won't be.
Add fresh roasted, finely ground coffee. Use proper tamping technique with at least 30lb of pressure.
Put the portafilter back in the machine. Try to do this fairly quickly, so you don't lose heat in the portafilter.
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Lock the portafilter in place. Grip the lever for stability while turning the PF to the right.
Place cup under the PF, and start pushing the lever down. Do it slow and even.
Pushing the lever down can be hard for shorter people, or women. The hand model is standing on a stool!
Locked down in the lowest position, you will hear water rush into the grouphead. Hold it...
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Hold for 10 seconds, or until you start seeing dribbles of espresso coming out.
Let the lever go. The spring will go to work, forcing water at roughly 8BAR through the ground coffee.
If pouring a double, grip the lever once it reaches this position, and start pushing down again slowly.
Push the lever all the way down again, you'll hear more water rush into the grouphead.
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Let go again, and let the spring complete its job of pouring you an excellent espresso.
Once the lever has reached it's top position, the shot is more or less done. Some dribbles will still come out.
One of the joys of this machine is steam on demand. Want a macchiato? Go for it!
Completed shot with macchiato finish, and the author's poor attempt at espresso cup "latte art".

Maintenance of the Micro Casa a Leva

There really isn't a lot to maintain on this machine on a day to day basis - just keep it clean, empty the drip tray often (it fills up fast), and give the machine a portafilter wiggle every shot or two (that's where you hold the portafilter loosely in the grouphead, and wiggle it so that water sloshes up near the gasket, cleaning it off).

The Micro Casa does have an adjustable pressurestat; however, I do not recommend that any owner change this on their own. Getting at it is a bit tough, and fooling with pressurestat settings on a lever machine is potentially dangerous - both in burn skin contacts and in other hazards. If your machine is not getting up to the kind of pressures and temperatures you want, you may want to bring it to your dealer so they can do the adjustments. Mind you, each machine is properly set at the factory, and should be fine in your home. It should peak at the tip of the green zone on the gauge, and valley about 2/3rds down on the green portion.

Cleaning the machine between uses is de rigueur - after all, it's supposed to be all shiny and sparkly, and brewing a shot and / or steaming milk will get spots and splashing here and there. Use a damp cloth, but be very very careful about what you touch with your hand - the machine is hot - that's an exposed boiler in front of you, and it holds water that is 254F (123C). Ouch!

With lever machines, there is one part of the machine that needs a lot of TLC from time to time - the piston group. It needs periodic cleaning, and periodic (once every year or two) changes to the gaskets. Fortunately with the Micro Casa a Leva, removing the entire piston group is as easy as removing two hex bolts at the top of the group. The entire piston assembly slides out. It should be cleaned and lubricated regularly with silicone grease, but also wiped down a fair amount - use your judgment as to what parts of the piston will touch water and which won't.

Service the gaskets every year or two, or when you start to see some leakage from the machine. Replacing the gaskets is a chore, but can still be done at home.

Piston Assembly, Removed (Click to enlarge any image).

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Remove the two hex bolts at the top of the piston.
Lifting the piston out slowly.
The piston is one group, and slides out easily.
The lower portion of the piston assembly, with gaskets.
Sorry for the blurr - entire piston assembly. Big Spring!

There is one problem with all this maintenance talk. Elektra parts are, sadly, hard to come by in the US, and when found, are often very expensive. This is one of the main reasons why you don't see Elektra commercial machines very much on these shores. I've spoken to Elektra and Dr. Fregnan about this very issue on a few occasions, and my understanding is that he is trying to affect change in this regard; however, I haven't heard anything yet about new sources for parts.

The few vendors and parts retailers that do carry Elektra parts usually charge much more for these parts than comparable parts for other machines. My advice? The first time you order new gaskets, order several sets, and get a few spare filter baskets and a portafilter while you're at it. You may want to order ahead of time, direct from Elektra (website).

Cleaning the boiler can be done with standard purocaff cleaner, but be wary of using it too much and also be warned - cleaning out the entire boiler means you also have to flush out the site glass pipe on the left side of the machine - you'll have to do some serious sloshing around to clean everything, so get your man-handle boots on and get ready to do a firm-grip jig with this thing cradled in your arms - you literally need that kind of strong grip and force to shake, rattle and roll liquid through this machine. I'd do a descaling clean as infrequently as possible with the machine.

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Introduction | Overview | History, Out of Box | Operation Etc. | Performance | Comparisons | Conclusions
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