Great compact professional machine that produces a superior cup of espresso.
Positive Product Points
The machine is very well built and has professional components; large boiler (4.2 liters), E61-type group head, a Procon rotary-vane pump, and a single guage that displays both boiler pressure and pump pressure. The biggest plus is that this is probably the most compact professional grade machine you will find, it will fit anywhere! The machine is also made in the USA and runs on 110v.
Negative Product Points
The retail price (which I did not pay) is pretty steep. The best price I have seen is $2100.00. Aesthetically there isn't a huge "wow" factor, considering the price. While it is covered in nice shinny stainless steel, it is still just another boxy design.
I had been shopping for a nice commercial/semi-commercial machine for an office environment for quite a while but my constraints were price and size. I had a budget of $1500 for a machine and a grinder and it had to fit under the 18" cupboards. I also wanted a machine that could be plumbed since several people in the office were going to be using it and I didn't want to worry about it running dry of water. The last constraint that I had was that it run on 110V which does rule out many commercial machines.
After quite a bit of shopping, most machines I came across were either too expensive or too big to fit under the cupboards. I had come to the conclusion that probably the best I could do was get an Isomac Millenium and see about getting a plumbing kit for it. Then I attended a bankruptcy auction for an internet company and as I was walking around looking at the servers, monitors, and networking gear available I wandered into an area that was marked "miscellaneous items". Lo and behold there was a box on the floor with the words "Astra" on it. I peeked inside the box and there was a brand new Astra Gourmet in it. To make a long story short, I ended up with the machine for the bargain price of $1000.00! After the sale I looked up what a new one goes for and the best price I could find was $2100.00, so I was quite pleased with myself. Perhaps it was this expenditure that put the internet company over the edge into bankruptcy and they never got a chance to install it ;>)
I installed the machine, which was easy enough, hooked it up to a water line, plugged it in to a 110v outlet, and turned it on. The Astra fits beautifully under the cupboards by the way, due to its 17" height. There are 2 switches on the front, one turns the machine on and the other activates the pump. I brought in my Silvia from home and plopped it down next to the Astra to see if I could tell which could produce the better shot. I used the same grind on a Rocky to fill each portafilter with some nice organic Timor.
After sampling the output of both machines, the Astra seemed to bring out more of the chocolaty tones of the Timor (which I like in an espresso) than did the Silvia. Its hard to say why the Astra out performed the Silvia in this less than scientific test, maybe it was the smooth rotary Procon pump or the heat exchanger, both of which the Silvia lacks.
There was no contest in the steaming area. The Astra just blew the Silvia away, which is really no surprise. The Astra has a 4.2 liter boiler compared to the diminutive boiler on the Silvia. The Astra just has an endless supply of dry steam powered by it's hefty 2000 watt heating element.
I would love to have the Astra at home because it really is the perfect size and has top notch componentry but I, as most people I suspect, have a hard time justifying its price for a home machine. Astra is an American company and it is a shame that they can't build this machine for a more affordable price! Heck, they have no ocean to ship it across!