Fully plumbed, rotary pump, E-61, very fine coffee - this machine is unbeatable value and perfect for an office.
Positive Product Points
Solid high quality of construction. Very robust, forgiving and easy to use. Good temperature stability. Reasonable ergonomics, good hot water delivery. Rotary pump much quieter than vibratory. Makes very fine coffee indeed.
Negative Product Points
Some sharp edges, steam wand a bit short and limited in movement. Problems with gasket and locking of portafilter.
This review pertains to the rotary pump, semiautomatic version of the MiniNova. This machine is often listed as a machine suited for use in an office environment, however one never seems to see reviews of any machine in such an environment. It is clear that an office is a very different place to a domestic kitchen, where a single enthusiast makes a small number of cups. An office machine will be used by a large number of people, of varying experience, capability, and competence, and will make a significantly larger number of drinks per day.
This machine is located in a kitchen area shared by two academic groups. About 50 people have access, although not all of those use the machine. The users are predominantly either computer scientists or physicists - and a conversation about steaming can not only include latent heat, but range up to the statistical mechanics of the gas laws. However competence with physical machines is about as varied as any other group of people. The machine was chosen after much argument. The original intent was for a commercial grade super-automatic. Senior management wanted to be able to walk in - push a button - and walk out with a coffee. However the sheer cost (over double the MiniNova) and the logistics of looking after a super-automatic (not to mention very vocal arguments about the quality of the coffee) swung the choice.
In particular the purchase of any kitchen equipment, be it a microwave oven, or coffee machine, in an office will very quickly descend into an argument about who will be responsible for keeping it clean. Secretarial staff will always (with justification) worry that the task of cleaning the mess up will fall to them. If they are shown the internals of a working super-automatic - and see the caked on mess of grinds, bizarre brew unit to be cleaned, slimy drip tray and puck bucket, they will very quickly insist on a conventional machine - where there is no hidden horror.
So, a MiniNova. It was a given that this machine would be fully plumbed. I could not imagine a non-plumbed machine in such an environment now. The improvement in ease of use and cleaning is enormous - and in an office environment probably crucial to the success of the machine.
The MiniNova uses an E-61 group head with a solenoid valve. This group's reputation for being reasonably forgiving seems somewhat justified, certainly it is hard to make a truly dreadful brew, something that does endear it in this environment. The sheer solidness of construction is very comforting. However this particular unit has a slightly thick gasket (we are assured that it will bed down with use) which so far has prevented the portafilters from engaging easily. Indeed there are still accidents when someone has not locked the portafilter in fully and has had it blow out - then spending five minutes cleaning up. This problem is particularly bad with the single basket, and suggests a fundamental flaw in the basket. Time will tell, but this is not satisfactory at the moment.
The portafilter handles supplied are in the LM 15 degree style - and the double is very easy to tamp, whereas the single is of course unaided by the design. One downside of this handle design is that, when cleaning with the "portafilter wiggle," sometimes water will run down the underside of the handle onto one's hand. Being aware of the possibility one can usually avoid it - but it is a real hazard.
Construction of the machine is of very high quality. There is a difference in feel from the large number of domestic E-61 machines. The MiniNova appears to be made much more as a production line product, rather than a hand-built high school metalworking class device. Everything is die cut. The downside of this is that there are a few sharp edges (for instance inside the drip tray) and the stainless steel sheet seems thinner than some other brands. However, these are very minor points. In general, the fit and finish is much better than these other brands. The totally stainless steel cabinet is very polished, and is very easy to keep clean, and indeed almost demands it of the users. We find everyone is very happy to keep it polished and gleaming. Little things - like the rounded corners, and the die cut drip dray cover (as opposed to the wire mesh of some other brands) make the machine much easier to keep clean.
In use it has proven to give no-one any problems. I'm sure many users are creating coffee that only they could regard as acceptable, but it is also capable of creating very good coffee indeed. Curiously the temperature stability seems to be better than I would have expected from comments about other E-61 machines. The machine seems to hardly require any sort of initial flush. I am suspicious that this may be due to the enclosed group head - which may allow the entire system to stabilise at a more consistent temperature - and allow for a slightly lower boiler temperature. But apart from measuring the temperature out of the group I have no additional data. I am pleased to say that I am now brewing myself coffee of a very satisfactory quality indeed. Pairing the machine with a grinder of the quality of the Mazzer Mini is clearly a crucial part of that success. (The standard Mini with doser is less of a success story in an office environment - but until we receive the Mini-E that story will remain untold.)
The MiniNova has a separate heat exchanger for hot water. In use it will cheerfully deliver lots of hot water, with no spattering or any of the alarming habits some other machines have. The clearance under the group and hot water nozzle is not great, and probably the biggest user complaint about the machine is an inability to get their coffee mugs under the portafilter. This has led to a few near accidents. Similarly, the steam nozzle is rather short, and rather restricted in motion. It would not serve well in large jugs. However when steaming for an individual coffee or two it is fine. Steaming is very good. The machine is fitted with a conventional five hole tip. This does result in very fast steaming. If one is used to a domestic machine, one will be taken aback by the ferocity. However one's technique quickly adapts and it is almost trivially easy to create good micro-foam. The steam knob is a huge plastic creation that feels very positive and allows for quite fine adjustment of steam delivery. This one feature makes the MiniNova significantly nicer to use than many other machines.
The machine has proven to be easy to keep clean, and more importantly, the users have taken to keeping it clean very well. I tend to give it a portafilter wiggle once a day, and generally check it is all pristine, with the occasional backflush. But the rancid oil encrusted disaster that some might fear has so far not eventuated. Even the steam nozzle gleams. The machine tends to be turned on at about 8am by the first person into the office, and is turned off at 5pm. I like to wait about 20 minutes minimum before making a coffee, but the machine does seem to warm up reasonably quickly. So far we have had no desire or need to put it on a timer.
We have had the machine for a couple of months now and it has proven to be very fit for purpose. Even our director - who was so convinced that a superauto was the right thing - because he didn't have the time to make a proper coffee - now admits that not only is the coffee so much better, but he enjoys the little break and the ritual of making an espresso. Of all the machines in this part of the market the MiniNova is almost certainly by far and away the best value. Fully plumbed and with a rotary pump there is essentially no competition. Whilst it will never win any beauty awards, the MiniNova has a certain businesslike style that is not intrusive. It would be hard to think of a better machine in this class for the money for use in an office.
Purchased from Rio Coffee, which is something of an Adelaide institution. Their main business is roasting, commercial sales and equipment, and importing Italian groceries, but they are fast establishing a boutique domestic machine business. They are very good to deal with, and have very good followup for their machines. They installed this machine and lent us an interim grinder (Mazzer Mini) whilst the Mazzer Mini-E was back-ordered. A very professional and obliging company. Purchase price in Australian dollars was $2,310 inc GST. Rios threw in a nice aluminium tamper (with their logo) plus a steaming jug and a bang box. Probably close to $70 worth. Of course we buy their coffee. Continued service and followup has been excellent.
Three Month Followup
Well this is far later than 3 months, but better late than never.
So? how do we feel about the MiniNova now. Pretty much unchanged. It has proven to be pretty reliable, although not perfect, and as we have got a better understanding, the coffee has improved to a consistent superb. My initial feelings about the temperature were unfounded, and I now use Dan Kehn's procedure for E61 groups and get very good results. The issues with the gasket have been largely solved with a new gasket (fitted for free). Recently the over-pressure valve failed (seems the spring fractured) and had to be replaced - again for free. We do find that behind the shower screen tends to get gunked-up. This may be a result of some users overfilling the basket and as the grounds expand actually forcing some grounds through the mesh - where it will further expand and stick - and then attract oil and generally get bad. With so many people using the machine it seems we will simply have to be vigilant about keeping it clean.
But on the whole, everyone agrees that the machine has been a fantastic purchase, and no-one could imagine not having it now, or having gone for a super automatic.
One Year Followup
So, it is now a full year. How has the machine gone? Well a couple of weeks ago the pump failed. Seems like something within the rotary pump proper died - either a seal or vane. So the machine had to be taken away for service. Back again, works fine and other than that no dramas. Rio Coffee continue to offer very good service - taking the machine away and delivering it back. Curiously the portafilter fit is better now too. Odd.
After a year the machine no longer looks sparkling new, it has started to take on the usual patina of stainless steel in constant use. Hard to complain about that. The only thing to upset this machine's place in my life has been the acquisition of a two group Wega Atlas Compact by the other department I work for. Sad to say this is clearly a superior machine to the Mininova, and my use of the Mininova has dropped off. When faced by the choice of which machine to use, the Atlas will always win. There is not much in it really, but enough. But the Atlas is also twice the price. However we are not comparing the machines using the same grinder, and thus not all is fair.