Elektra believes in the artistry of their machines and packaging, and the Nivola is no slouch in this area. It is well packed, ships with a very complete instruction manual, and your first impression when pulling the machine out of the box is "wow". As in "wow, they have built a serious piece of machinery here", or "wow, this looks so freaking cool!"
Once the machine is up on the counter, you realise that this is a unique beast in the consumer espresso market. I've seen and used Francis! Francis! machines in the past, and know it has a certain "gee whiz" factor with people when it comes to looks, but trust me on this - the F!F! doesn't compare when stacked side by side with the Nivola. The F!F! model almost seems toy like next to the retro, Buck Rogers like shape and design of the Elektra brewer.
Now that may sound a bit confusing - I labeled the Nivola "Buck Rogers-esque" while saying it isn't a toy. It's hard to describe unless you see this machine in person - it definitely does not make one think "toy" when seeing it. In person, it looks like a solid, massive piece of sculpted aluminum, and when you pick it up, you almost think this. The weight is roughly 10 kilos empty (about 22.5 pounds), but it seems heavier than that, perhaps because the flowing lines don't lend itself to easy handling.
A good friend of mine disputes the Buck Rogers design I see in the product. He sees it as more of a 1930s deco-retro train design, especially from the back of the unit. This is definitely a conversation starting machine, and is not meant to be hid in the corner of your kitchen - it is meant to be displayed proudly on a 360 degree open countertop, perhaps on a breakfast nook-type counter in many modern kitchens.
Almost everything on the machine is metal, with the exception of the removable drip tray (the cover is polished stainless steel), the water reservoir (plastic), the plastic light covers in the front, and portafilter handle (bakelite).
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| Front View. Click to Enlarge. |
| Left (or your Right) Side View. Click to Enlarge |
| Nivola Backside. Click to Enlarge |
| Nivola Right Side (or Left, your choice). Click to Enlarge |
After thoroughly reading through the manual a few times, it was time to plug the Elektra Nivola in and let her go through her first cycling. It's fairly easy to do the initial prime on this machine - turn the dial selector to steam, put a half-filled steam pitcher under the froth-aiding wand, and turn it on. You'll hear a warning beep for a few seconds, then the machine activates the pump and fills the boiler. After about 35 seconds, it's done. This is a nice feature - not many machines in the consumer class "auto prime" themselves. This isn't technically an automatic priming session, some manual input is needed, but not much. Electronics monitor the system and do the work for you.
Speaking of the electronics, one thing about this machine that Elektra pushes heavily - it is a "thinks for you" type machine. Not a full blown automatic, but pretty close. For instance, it won't brew a cup of espresso until the boiler is at what Elektra has determined as the perfect temperatures (around 90C). In a way this borrows from "automatic" espresso machines such as the Solis SL-90 or the Starbucks Athena in that you can turn the machine on in the morning, lock and load your portafilter, select brew, and walk away. The machine will start brewing automatically once the optimal temperature has been reached.
But it is not a full automatic machine, per se. You have to kill the brew switch (actually, a dial) when your double has poured, usually between 25 and 30 seconds. There is another automated feature that may upset fans of lungos or "cafe suisse" - the machine is programmed to automatically stop brewing after 40 seconds. However, if you grind coarser, you brew up one of those lovely swiss favourites, no sweat.
| One Dial does it all with the Nivola. Good stuff... and bad. Click to Enlarge |
The machine has no switches like a typical semi-auto machine, except for the power switch. You choose brewing or steaming via a turn on the big beefy dial on the top right side of the machine. Turn the dial to brew to start your shot, turn it to stop (middle position) when you want to end your shot.
There are no steaming knobs either - the machine is one of those "all or nothing" steaming devices. I can't say I like this much, but I'll cover this more in the Operation section.
On the brewing side of things, the grouphead is a nice solid piece of brass directly attached to the boiler sitting above it. The dispersion screen does the job, and the portafilter is easy to lock into place. No crema enhancing devices are used in this machine - a huge plus, but I was very surprised to see the Nivola doesn't have a 3 way solenoid. At this price point I would almost expect it as standard equipment. Without the solenoid pressure relief system, the kind found in machines like the Silvia, the Gaggia Classic, and almost every other machine above $600, you have to wait before removing the portafilter after a shot, or you get the dreaded "portafilter sneeze" where hot grounds will spray everywhere if you remove it too soon.
In the first few days of testing, I pulled a few pounds' worth of coffee through the machine, and it performed more or less as you would expect it to do. There's some quirks to deal with because of the automated features (for instance, there's an audible alarm on the brewer for when conditions go south, like the water level going low), but you get used to them quick.
The initial shots I pulled on the Nivola were not the best espresso shots I've had. In fact, I've had better initial success on machines costing $400 less. Two suspected reasons were the preset brewing temperatures and the noticeably slow flow rate of the pump. I'll cover these more in depth in the Performance section of this review.
There was one thing I found especially impressive about this machine from the beginning: even though this machine doesn't give off a lot of ambient heat (by comparison - my Livia 90 almost puts off enough warmth to heat my kitchen regularly), the cup warmer on top of the Nivola is easily the best I've ever tested in machines in this class. The cups are around 45C or higher after sitting up there for an hour.
After doing an initial evaluation on the machine in 'grind' mode, I did the conversion over to pods and ran my first serious tests with the machine, using different small test groups of friends and family members. This, along with more detailed grounds-usage performance are covered in the next two sections.