Please note that this review applies to the semi-automatic vibe pump pourover Wega Mininova. A number of other models in the Mininova range exist, but my comments don't necessarily apply to them.
I make and sell espresso-based drinks for a living, alongside my own cooked food at local farmers' markets. Until recently I was using my poor beleaguered Rancilio Silvia for this, but demand gradually increased, especially for milk drinks, until it reached the point where I realised I needed a more powerful machine to cope, and in particular I needed steam on demand. This realization got me started on some detailed research, and after pouring over the coffee sites late night after late night I got the list down to four or five serious light commercial HX machines. My requirements for the new machine were very specific:
- It had to be portable i.e. built-in tank and under 30Kg
- It had to be proven commercial performer, or at least built by a company that specializes in commercial machines. If I was going to buy a semi-commercial, I wanted it to be at the bottom end of a commercial range rather than the top end of a domestic line. It was important to me that the machine was built from the outset to perform in a commercial environment.
- It had to cost less than 2,000 dollars
My shortlist included the LaCimbali Junior, Faema compact, Rancilio Epoca, LaScala Butterfly and the Mininova. I wrote off the Epoca due to the extreme weight. The Junior and Faema were great machines at the very top end of the budget. The Butterfly very nearly got the nod but poor local service and a lack of detailed reviews counted against it. Then I found a fantastic deal on the Mininova, and that was that. I picked up the old model Wega with ABS top and drip tray for significantly less than I would have paid for any other machine on my list (or many others I considered, including the ECM Giotto, Brewtus II, Andreja, Isomacs etc. etc.) - and to me that made it an unmissable bargain.
Now I'm starting in to my second month with the Mininova, and overall I couldn't be happier with it.
Out of the box the machine looked very impressive. I hadn't been expecting great things on the appearance front after reading much criticism of the ABS top panel and drip tray, but make no mistake these look in no way out of place. And there is still easily enough highly polished stainless on the sides and front to keep me and my beloved - the primary cleaner - happy. In fact, the sides are so highly polished that at one point I actually jumped at the startling sight of my reflected hand. Put in place on my stainless counter, the machine immediately looked the real deal.
I was pleased to find a good few bonus items in the box, including water & waste pipework for plumbing it in. One factor in choosing this machine is that it is truly dual purpose - under the lid is a rocker switch that selects between plumbed and pourover modes. So unlike most pourover machines, it is ready to install permanently if the situation ever arises.
Before firing it up I took off the top and had a peer inside. I don't know much about these things but I've stripped down a few machines in my time and I was delighted with the apparently high build quality. All the fittings, pipes and tubes are in reassuringly solid copper or brass, except for the steel boiler and the necessarily flexible tank feed and return tubes. I was slightly nervous at first when I saw the positioning of the internal tank, which sits at the back well below the level of the top plate. At first glance it looked as though it would be difficult to fill without pouring water all over the plumbing, but in practice this hasn't turned out to be a problem as the angle is perfect for a right-handed pour from a bottle into the tank. Left handers YMMV. It doesn't and will never have the same neatness as Silvia's tightly fitting, easily removed square reservoir. You can't remove the Wega's tank without undoing a couple of allen screws, so I doubt it'll get cleaned out all that often. The primary cleaner is allergic to screwdrivers. But it seems to work OK, and in a weird way I find the slightly haphazard nature of the tank quite reassuring as it is obviously a legacy of the machine's commercial heritage. More thought and care could certainly have been applied to the tank, but it is perfectly adequate, and pourover machines must form a very small element of Wega's business.
So it was time to switch on, and for a moment or two I found myself perplexed by the positioning of the rocker switches. The main power switch is placed directly over the brew head where you would expect to find the brew switch. To add to the confusion, the (truly dreadful) manual seems to indicate that the power switch should be where the brew switch actually is. I even wondered whether their positions had simply been swapped inadvertently in the factory, perhaps on a Friday afternoon or after a Chianti or two. I considered swapping them over, but when I examined the wiring it was clear this positioning had been arrived at by design. So in the absence of any electrical know-how, I will just have to live with it. And it's usually OK, although one time at the market I did hit the power switch by mistake to end a shot. I didn't even notice until the next order came in a few minutes later. When I hit the button for a cooling flush nothing happened. Then I noticed the pressure guage was way down the scale, and finally I twigged what I'd done. Hopefully it's a case of once bitten, but if there was one single design feature I would ask Wega to change, it would be the position of these two switches.
I wondered whether the impact during shipping would have damaged the machine's internals, but when I finally fired it up the power light came on and the automatic pump sprang into action as expected, priming the boiler. While the machine heated up I pressed the brew and hot water buttons in turn and both brought forth water from their respective outlets. So far so good. It was time to make espresso.
Shot quality and consistency immediately outstripped Silvia by a much greater margin than I had expected. Silvia was already making better espresso than I could buy at any local coffee shop - due mainly I suspect to always using freshly roasted beans, using only Volvic water, and keeping her insides scrupulously clean. But as it turns out, the Mininova is consistently way better than Silvia, with greatly increased depth and fullness of flavour in the cup, and darker, denser crema. Silvia's very best shots are almost a match for the Wega, but I can achieve a very high standard time and again with the Wega, without really having to think about it.
Another striking difference over Silvia is how forgiving the Wega is. I pulled the first test shot on the Wega - a double - with the grinder dialled in for Silvia. I gave it my usual double tamp and polish, pressed the button and started counting. By five, Silvia's spouts would have already been in full flow, but as yet there was nothing at all from the Wega. By eight I thought it had choked - top start - but I hadn't anticipated the impact of the E61 group's preinfusion cycle. At ten seconds, just as I was about to give up, the spouts started to pour perfect thin dark rods of coffee, which by fifteen had transformed into great fat globs of tawny crema dripping thickly into the glasses. At 27 seconds both glasses were full - almost a whole ounce of crema sitting on top of a short, dense black layer, just like a freshly pulled pint of stout. There was still no excessive lightening of the trails from the spouts, and it was time to stop a perfect pour. I can only say the taste didn't disappoint either. Beginners luck, I thought, but I've hardly had to touch the grinder since. Single shots, doubles, trebles, it seems to make no difference to the Wega. I dry the basket, grind, tamp, wait eight to ten seconds for the pour to start, another 15 to 20 for it to finish, and serve up another great shot. For all her qualities, I could only dream about that sort of consistency with Silvia.
As for frothing, nothing I'd read had prepared me for the sheer power of a proper steaming system. I'd been happy enough with Silvia's actual steaming performance - it was the repeated heating and cooling that was costing me time and money. I'd certainly never considered Silvia slow, but I now realize that it doesn't have to take a full minute to steam half a litre of milk. My first efforts, it has to be said, were poor, and I was starting to believe the reports of the Wega's 5-hole steam tip being a difficult beast to tame. I was staggered by the speed at which the milk heated. My normal 8oz cappachino quantity was raging hot in about ten seconds, but it was all big bubbles and thin liquid underneath, no sign of the silky microfoam I was used to making with Silvia. Working with more milk didn't really help either: I just ended up with more big bubbles and thin liquid. But after a couple of failed attempts I started to get it. The trick for me is to lower the jug really fast, as the milk stretches so quickly that you can easily get left behind. Just keep listening for the tssk tssk sound that you get when the wand is at the right level in the liquid - and when the noise changes, adjust the pitcher fast.
My efforts at steaming for customers in the first week were a bit hit and miss, but things quickly improved and now I'm quite happy with the the microfoam I'm producing with the Wega. And loving the way the steam is always just there when I need it. Don't believe everything you might read about it not being possible to produce decent foam with the stock Wega steam tip - with a bit of time invested in learning how it performs, it will produce excellent foam at high speed.
I should also briefly mention the hot water supply, which is plentiful and fiercely hot. The stout commercial outlet works off a sprung rocker which returns to the off position after you release the switch and therefore can't be left on by accident. Hot water on the Mininova is provided by a second heat exchanger, entirely independent from the brew group HX. There are two advantages of this: hot water is always pulled straight from the tank so you aren't drinking possibly stale boiler water, and the hot water HX is positioned in the boiler so as to provide hotter water than the brew HX. The second HX for hot water is one of the professinal features which in my opinion sets the Wega apart as a true light commercial rather than a high spec domestic machine.
I adjusted the pressurestat down from the factory setting a few times, and am still tinkering with it from time to time in search of the ideal sweet spot. My orders at the market tend to be sporadic - a big rush first thing, then quiet periods interspersed with big orders, so at first I found myself wasting lots of expensive Volvic water on cooling flushes. This has improved with a lower pressurestat setting, with what I consider to be a worthwhile small reduction in steam capacity. This is a standard adjustment that will probably be needed on any HX machine to set it up for the particular demands placed on it. I am considering upgrading the stock 1300w boiler element to the 1500w that I believe is supplied as standard on the new Mininova Inox model. This should boost the steam power and reduce recovery time, which is in no way sluggish with the stock element and hasn't been a problem so far, but which could become one if things get really busy.
So to wind up, I am highly impressed by the Mininova. I would like to have experience of other HX machines, to have something to compare it with. For all I know, others might be twice the machine the Wega is. But it has sorted me out, and at what I consider to be a bargain price of under 800 Euros delivered to me here in Ireland, where most things are either overpriced or unavailable. One caveat: I wouldn't necessarily recommend this machine for a home setting, unless you steam a hell of a lot of drinks and have bags of money, a big kitchen and a taste for commercial catering equipment. It is big, industrial-looking, heavy, counter-hungry, power hungry, noisy at times, heavy on water consumption, and generally a beast to have knocking around the place. But more importantly than all that, it allows me to do a professional job professionally, without having to hold its hand. It is the perfect solution for my requirements and I wouldn't hesitate to buy it again.