As mentioned in the La Pavoni review, you don't buy lever espresso machines for high production rates, for banging out shot after shot after shot. You buy a lever machine because of the hands on experience. Because of the artistry that espresso can be. Because of the seemingly magic and mystical things that go with this kind of machine. You buy a lever machine because of the drop dead gorgeous looks. And you buy a lever machine because, in the hands of someone who puts months and years of practice into it, you can get the most amazing shots of espresso you'll ever get. But you won't get serious performance. That said...
Spring Piston vs. Lever Piston
To reiterate what was previously covered in this review, the Micro Casa a Leva is a spring piston espresso machine. There are basically two types of domestic (or commercial) lever espresso machines - straight piston and spring piston. The piston style relies on your muscle power and a lever to push water through ground coffee. A spring lever works differently - you load or "cock" an internal spring by pulling down on a lever, and then you release it. The spring then does the job of pushing water through the ground coffee. Ground, compressed coffee acts like a dampening device of sorts - a buffer and resistance force - or as I like to put it, an "energy eater".
When there's no coffee to create pressure, the lever slams upward really fast, and reports of lost teeth by inattentive operators have been heard. You've been warned :)
As much as I hate to admit this, spring lever machines are, in my opinion and experience, better machines than manual lever piston machines like the La Pavoni. I say "hate" because, well, there's some extra bit of artistry and "romance" if you will in a true 100% manual system like the Pavonis, but the fact is, a spring piston provides extremely even and consistent extraction rates, putting these machines on par with commercial pump machines using rotary pumps. In fact, they may possibly be even better, when consistency in flow pressure is your measurement.
One boon to quality espresso production is this consistent flow pressure - water is pressurized and forced through a bed of finely ground coffee at precise, exact flow rates. Most consumer and "prosumer" pump driven espresso machines use vibratory pumps which are sometimes not very even or consistent in the pressure they produce - think of a vibe pump as a rapid series of punches, punching out water at super high pressure. Commercial espresso machines often use rotary pumps which use a circulating vane system for evenly and continuously providing even flow rates. Put another way, a vibe pump pulses the water; a rotary pump pushes it more evenly. For this reason, many believe rotary pump designs are superior to the production of first rate espresso.
Guess what - you get this kind of even pressure from a third type of pressurized system - the spring lever design, the design built into the Micro Casa a Leva. In theory, this means you should get superior extraction quality. In practice, we found this to be true, especially in side by side testing against the La Pavoni Professional and two vibe pump espresso machines.
Coffee, Grind, Tamp and Volume for a Spring Piston
If you don't want to deal with many variables, don't buy a piston machine, get a super auto. It's that simple. If vibe pump semi-auto espresso machines like the Rancilio Silvia and Gaggia Classic need a lot of attention to the "variables" to pull off an excellent shot, it's even more true with a lever machine.
Grind, tamp and volume of grounds are absolutely crucial to getting a great shot with the Micro Casa a Leva. There's no way around it. You will not get a good shot with Illy preground. You won't get a good shot with fresh roast coffee that's been ground in a cheap grinder. You definitely won't get a good shot if you use old beans. And you won't get a good shot if you're even slightly off on your grind, your tamp, or the volume of grinds you use.
I did find in my testing that since the Micro Casa's double basket held up to 3 grams more than the Pavoni double basket (14.5 grams vs 11.5 to 12 grams), I could actually use the same fine-tuned grind on the Elektra that I previously used with the La Pavoni Professional. In essence, I had about 200 lever pulled shots under my belt when coming to the Elektra, and that gave me a real foundation for further fine tuning the grind in a short time.
The main grinder I used with the machine was a Mazzer Mini, but I also used a Nuova Simonelli Grinta and the Innova Flat Burr grinder - all performed great with this machine, but the Mazzer and Innova gave me that extra edge in super fine tuning ability that made it fun to spend an afternoon pulling shot after shot, fine tuning the balance, examining the results, and basically being a coffee geek (no, I didn't drink most of the shots - I was visually judging them).
Grind and tamp go hand in hand, so before I get to volume, let me discuss the kind of tamp I saw as useful with this machine. I know the spring is set to provide an even 8BAR of pressure to the packed bed of coffee. 1BAR, or about 15psi lower than the official 9BAR rating. I initially thought I may have to adjust my tamp to compensate for this, but I found that the grind I was using let me go with my standard 30lb pack, knock, and 30lb polish to the puck. A solid, even bed of coffee is so crucial with this machine, it ain't funny. Don't use the dispersion screen to tamp your coffee.
Volume of grinds is another core issue. I found I got the best results from this machine when I had about 1mm clearance between the dispersion screen and the tamped bed of coffee. This means you have to have almost exactly 1/4 inch of sidewall in the double basket showing after you've crammed in 14.5 grams of coffee.
I can't emphasize enough the need to absolutely perfect your grind, tamp, and volume with this machine, and make sure you're using top tier, fresh roasted, fresh ground coffee. I only got the kind of performance I did with this machine once I really got to know the variables and how to control them.
Water - the Almost Controllable Variable
With the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, water is both a friend and enemy to your espresso. The machine heats up to 123Celsius inside the pressurized boiler. You don't want 123C water touching your ground coffee. The machine is designed so that for the first few shots, the bridge between the grouphead and boiler, and the grouphead itself act as a heat sink to get that brew water down to around 95C, which is a shade off of perfect for brewing espresso.
But once you pull multiple shots, the heat sink ability of the grouphead and bridge is reduced. Not as much as on the Pavoni Professional, but it still happens. There are ways to deal with it.
One way I found of increasing performance on the machine was to let it heat up, pour a blank shot to heat up the grouphead, then turn the machine off. You can pull shots from the Micro Casa without any electricity. The first shot you pull will reduce the boiler pressure, and with reduced pressure comes reduced temperatures. Finish your shot, enjoy it, and after 30 seconds, remove the portafilter and clean it out. Turn the machine on, load up the PF with another shot, and you can get near identical shot results to the first one... once you get a feel for how the machine adjusts to temperatures and this whole power on and off thing.
You can also control the grouphead and bridge temperatures somewhat by using an ice cold wet cloth (see our tips and tricks on the Operation and Maintenance page). This is a tyro fix, and only really necessary if you want more than 4 shots of espresso.
Once I really got to know the Micro Casa a Leva, I found that day by day performance on the machine was a notch above the La Pavoni Professional. The spring really aids in producing repeatable results, and the larger grouphead, larger filter, and overall better design give you a really good shot of espresso consistently. If you goal is to have one shot and one cappuccino (or two cappuccinos) per "session" with the machine, it's almost ideal. Having steam on demand means that macchiatos are a convenience, not an annoyance while waiting for the steam to heat up. Even pulling americanos is easy - albeit not nearly as easy as a machine with a proper hot water tap.
Outside of intensive testing, I found myself in a pleasant routine with the Micro Casa. In the morning I would first turn on the machine, then go do my morning toiletry stuff (brush teeth, etc). Once I was done, the machine was up to pressure. I'd bleed off some (I know it's not necessary with the machine - it's a habit), and I would pull a blank shot. Then I would grind, load, tamp, lock and load into the machine, and pull my first double. I'd froth up 3 oz of milk and stain the top of that espresso shot for my first wake-me-up. Then I would remove the portafilter, load it up again, and lock it in. The wand was cleaned, then I would steam 4 oz of water up to boiling, then pour an Americano.
The machine is turned off, and after I'm done drinking the americano and reading the paper, I go back to it and remove the portafilter, clean it, run some water through the machine (there's still enough residual pressure to run water through the grouphead when you press down on the lever), wipe up and I'm done. In about 4 minutes of "machine time", I had two complex drinks. Not too shabby.
Steaming with the Micro Casa is, as I've stated before - a joy. Not a perfect joy, but close. The machine surprised me a bit in that it can take up to 40 seconds or more to steam 7oz of milk - I would have thought that with a 1.8 litre boiler (1.2 litre max water), it would have ample steam to give the Livia (at 23 seconds or less) a run for her money. But I believe part of the reason for the long steaming times is the smaller steam tube and the super tight dispersion pattern holes in the steaming tip. The same elements that make this a near ideal "microfrother" device for creating that silky smooth microfroth so crucial to making latte art, but also crucial to an excellent drink experience with dense pliable foam.
The Micro Casa also lost points with me in terms of the layout and design of the steam wand - but I attribute it to my being left handed, and it's a right-hander's world. The wand does not move; instead, it sits far out to the right side of the body of the machine, and angles out at about 8 o'clock (looking at the machine from the right side). The steam knob is uncomfortably close to the body of the machine, and it's direct action on a ball valve doesn't allow for a lot of control over the steam power (though it does give enough).
Right handed people have no worries with this setup, but for me, I found it awkward. Once I got used to it (or learned to live with it), I did like the instant ability to froth up milk for my espresso and cappuccino, and cleaning the wand is easy. I also liked how the steam was almost instantly dry. With a machine like the Pasquini Livia, you have to bleed out a lot of wet stuff (about 1oz) before you get dry steam. With dual purpose boiler machines, you have to bleed out a lot more, so this is a real boon on the Elektra.
Overall, the machine is fairly easy to use, if you're tall enough or strong enough. I had no issues with the lever position, the "angle of attack" I had to take with the machine, or the pressure I had to apply. Most males who tried the machine noted the same, but a few women who tested it did find it awkward. Some were actually afraid of the machine and the heat it produced, not to mention the pressure needed to press the lever down. It can be an intimidating machine for the new user, no doubt.
I did like the fact that the Elektra is fairly bottom heavy, and doesn't slide around much. Pavoni could learn from this. The bottom also has five rubber indents to make it more slide resistant - a nice design and functionality touch.
The Elektra Micro Casa is rock solid. The only concern I have is the polished finish of the boiler brass is susceptible nicks and scrapes. I managed to put a few on the boiler myself (how I did it, I really don't know).
The chrome parts are more durable, and to this day they bear nary a mark. The simple yet efficient design of the piston assembly means near-worry free maintenance and performance for years, and the top quality parts throughout will last a long time.
Of course, getting an accurate chart of actual machine durability is something way beyond the scope of our Detailed Review - we'd have to evaluate the product for a two or three year period to get a better representation, but from what I can see of the machine's build and parts, it's designed to last decades.
The only downside to all of this is the availability of parts for Elektra machines in N. America. Ordering from Italia isn't the most convenient thing, and I hope Elektra remedies this situation soon.