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the first look - elektra micro casa leva
Elektra Micro Casa a Leva
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: May 14, 2002
First Look rating: 8.4
feedback: (7) comments | read | write

UPS lost our shipment for a short time and treated it pretty rough, and when it finally arrived, the steam wand on the unit was damaged. This was probably due to UPS ‘inspecting’ the package, and not packing it back up properly. Elektra was very quick in sending out a replacement wand, and once it arrived, we were good to go.

Click for larger image
The aluminum case is subtantial, and can be ordered optionally for $200. Click to enlarge

Our Micro Casa came complete with Elektra’s optional aluminum carry case, which just exudes luxury and style. It is very similar to the expensive cases used to transport delicate photography and film equipment, and the attention to detail that this company shows in its products is also evident in this aluminum case. The locking mechanism is one I have not personally seen before, and while I admit it took me some time to figure it out, once I did, I was even more impressed.

Inside this $200 optional case sits the Micro Casa partially disassembled. The lever, portafilter, second dome, measuring spoon, filter baskets and drip dray assembly all fit in their own little areas cut out of the dense foam inserts. The machine is heavy, coming in at over 10 kilos empty (13 kilos full) and the total weight including the case approaches 17 kilograms?. Transporting the case is relatively easy once you deal with the weight - it has a very sturdy and well designed carrying handle built into it.

Setting up the machine is a no brainer - just screw in the brass and bakelite lever, lock in the portafilter, and it is ready to have water added and turned on.

The Micro Casa is very bottom heavy, a big improvement over the La Pavoni Professional we’re currently evaluating. It is also pretty big, with a 1.8 litre boiler and a 26 cm (about 10 inches) diameter base. The plug is positioned a bit weird, but not as bad as some of the machine we’ve tested recently. On the counter, it is very much the ultimate conversation piece, and no one has failed to notice it yet, even my very jaded “non-espresso” friends and family who often stop by. In fact, one of our friends who doesn’t even drink coffee asked if this machine would become a contest prize eventually on this site - because he hoped to win it!

The boiler is polished brass, as is the lever, drip tray cover, and ball valve assembly for the steam wand.  The rest of the machine is polished chrome, except for the removable “dome” on the top, which is polished stainless steel. The eagle is, I think, made out of bronze, but I cannot confirm this as of this writing. It may be brass, but it is a different brass from the rest of the machine.

I noticed a lot of fingerprints all over the machine (again I suspect UPS), but it was quite easy to clean off. The entire machine exudes a mirror finish that looks like it is made to last.

Micro Casa Manual

Elektra includes an good manual with this machine (their Nivola manual is better), one that covers all their Micro machines, including the semi automatica and mini verticale. I read through the manual extensively, because as we always say - READ the freaky manual (rfm) - there's no excuse not to, except for lazyness and a wont of ignorance :).

Elektra's manual included some very common sense instructions on pulling a double vs. a single, and they solved a dilemma I had with regards to a competing product - the La Pavoni Professional. When pulling a single shot on the Elektra, you do the lever action once. But if you are pulling a double, you let the lever rise about halfway after starting the shot, then pull it down again to add more boiler water for the bigger shot. Cool - I couldn’t find this instruction in the La Pavoni manual, but it makes sense when building two espresso shots with the double basket.

The overall build and construction of the Micro Casa is absolutely first rate. In some areas, it even puts the Pavoni to shame. The only disappointment I had with anything on the Elektra was the shallow and hard to pull out plastic drip tray (on top of which sits a polished brass, perforated plate). This is a very minor concern - the Micro Casa is built bullet tough.

Click for larger image

First Use
Elektra does not include any real instructions on “flushing” the machine like many other manufacturers do, but I decided to do it anyway. So I wiped everything down, cleaned the portafilter and enclosed basket (which is held in securely, unlike the baskets on the La Pavoni), filled up the boiler, and plugged it in.

It took 13 minutes and 5 seconds to get a 3/4 full boiler up to brewing pressures, which is a fair amount of time - catering espresso machines with similar size boilers can get up to temp (in the boiler at least) in much shorter times. Once the machine reached temp, I opened the steam valve to bleed off any false pressure, and ran through some brew water.

This is where I experienced something I already knew about the Micro Casa. Where the La Pavoni is a straight piston machine using your muscle to push the brew water through the puck, the Elektra is a spring piston machine, which means you push down on the lever to load up an internal spring, and you let go of the lever, allowing the spring to do its job of pushing water through the bed of coffee.

The spring loading is a bit of grunt work, but I found it fairly easy. Jeanette found it much more difficult, so this is not a machine for people who might be “height challenged” or without the proper leverage strength. I don’t have any easy way to determine the exact pressure you need to exude on the lever, but it is a good amount.

Once I flushed the machine, I turned it off to cool, emptied the boiler, and refilled it with fresh water. Heat up time was more or less identical to the first try. One thing about these piston machines... the brew water is above boiling in the boiler, and in a way, the grouphead is meant to act as a heat sink, cooling the water down before it gets to your ground coffee. For this reason, you get the best results from a piston machine if you brew soon after it has heated up.

In fact, with my La Pavoni experience, I realised that these kind of espresso machines are even more “hands on” than just pushing or pulling on a lever. You have to know how the machine operates, how it reacts to heat, how it reacts to time. One Elektra owner I’ve had email conversations with has told me that he knows exactly how to get it “cooled down” enough to brew shot after shot. When I pressed him for the method, he responded by “it can’t be taught or typed... it has to be experienced and learned. You’ll get to know what you can do, how long you have to do it, and when you should”.

Man, this sensei stuff is tricky! :)

The filter basket is a standard 49 mm (I say standard because it seems every piston machine uses this size, at least the ones I’ve tried out before), and Elektra’s tamper is the typical plastic cheapie model (which goes against the grain of all their other kit), but at least it is a secure fit. The double holds roughly 15.5 grams of coffee when packed right. You lock and load to the right side of the machine, then pull down the lever handle all the way. When you hit bottom, you’ll hear a whoosh of water, but keep holding the lever for at least 10 seconds, or until you see some dribbles of water. Then let it rise up on its own, as the spring goes to work.

For a double, you let it rise roughly half way, then slowly push it down again to bring more water into the grouphead. Let it go, and finish brewing the double.

My part time Elektra sensei was right, by the way - the first shot brewed, soon after the machine has reached proper pressure, was extremely good. The next shot was noticeably worse, with definite “burnt” overtones in the cup.

How to defeat this? One way I found was using a very cold washcloth on the grouphead drops the temps substantially. Loading up for the next shot then gives you a cooler grouphead, which is the secret to banging out shot after shot.

For our detailed review, I will have a lot more information on this process, and while my sensei wasn’t willing (or able :)) to give up his secrets, I’ll try my best to establish multiple brewing techniques for our full review.

Frothing with Micro Casa

First week with the Elektra
One thing I discovered during my first week with the Elektra is its phenomenal steaming ability. And get this - it isn’t even really fast. But Elektra has one of the best designed steam tips I’ve ever used (as matched to a particular machine). It is a three hole dispersion pattern that creates massive rolling turbulence in the steaming pitcher. My very first attempt with it produced glass-surface like microfoam. The only downside is it took roughly a minute to steam about 10 ounces of milk (by comparison, my Livia 90 can do about 10 ounces in under 37 seconds). I can live with that, because I have never, ever been able to get better microfoam from any machine I’ve ever used. Ever.

During the first week I left the machine on quite a bit, sometimes just to take advantage of the steaming ability. I also pulled some shots after having the machine on for a few hours, to see what it tasted like. Bitter burnt. So seeking a way to cool down the group (the secret to getting a good shot) was becoming a mission. Of course, brewing soon after turning the machine on is the best bet, but this machine is quite capable of being left on all day with its 1.8 litre boiler.

I did find that there is a sweet spot for the "midway" point when the lever is rising, in order to extract a good double short. I let the lever come up to about 9:45 pm (if you're looking at the machine from the right side) before pushing it down again. When the lever is full up, it is at around 11pm, so you want to go just short of midway between straight out (9pm) and 11pm. To help complete this visual, when the lever is fully depressed, it is at roughly 8pm if you were looking at the machine from the right side.

Another way to have a visual clue on when to depress the lever again is the central piston rod you see above the main group. When only about a cm of the rod is still above the housing, press down all the way again.

I found myself missing a hot water tap, as I did with the La Pavoni Pro lever machine. A guy from Nuova Simonelli suggested a fix - use the steam wand to rapid-boil water for use in Americanos. I did so, and the steam wand took approximately 24 seconds to get 4 oz of water up to boiling (enough water for a six oz americano, using 2 oz of espresso).

The "instant steam" feature that this machine shares with other lever machines like the Pavoni Pro or Micro Cimbali may be to the detriment of the "burnt shot" effect I talk about above, but it is also a boon to those of us who don't want to wait for cappuccinos or for doing a dollop of froth on top of your espresso shot. As soon as you brew, you can steam. Heck, you can do it at the same time, if you're dexterous enough. One drink I was enjoying over and over again with this machine was a Machiatto (espresso "stained" with a dollop of frothed milk). The turbulent, super frothing abilities of the steam wand made it a snap.

I should also note that, just like the La Pavoni, the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva gets hot - seriously hot. Burn your skin off in strips hot. Always handle this machine with the utmost care and respect.

Closeup of Gauge

Wrapup
My "likeaffair" with lever machines continues with this Elektra Micro Casa a Leva. One could argue it is one of the most beautiful espresso machines you can get for the home (though I still give a slight nod to the Elektra Mini Verticale). The Elektra doesn't give you as intense a feeling of "being one" with the espresso like the La Pavoni Professional does; after all, you load a spring, but the spring does the brewing work. Many like this aspect better - it produces more consistent espresso than the totally human controlled Pavonis. The jury is still out for me on this.

The machine has two qualities I really like - the aforementioned "work of art" status, but also the fact that it is a functional work of art, and a highly functioning one at that. The Micro Casa a Leva seems more solidly built than the Pavoni Pro, and has a bigger boiler, with much better steam production. Because it is sold for only $50 dollars more than the base La Pavoni (if you want an all brass La Pavoni, the price climbs to higher than this current deal on the Elektras), it is an extremely good value in this world of rare and exotic espresso machines.

We'll be giving it a full month testing, complete with some small user groups, and we hope to have our comprehensive look at this intriguing machine online by the end of May or start of June.

Once again, we would like to thank Elektra SRL for supplying this machine. You can purchase the Elektra at 1st in Coffee.

First Look rating: 8.4
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: May 14, 2002
feedback: (7) comments | read | write
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