Question? Have a question or just want to talk espresso? Check out the forum and its FAQs and Favorites!


Elektra Microcasa a Leva Review

By Gary Seeman


Image
The Elektra Microcasa a Leva is the most traditional of Elektra's home espresso machines. Its stunning design recalls a golden era when Italians invented the espresso we know today. When you see one up close its beautiful design and finish reveal that this more than a home appliance, it's a work of art. The Microcasa a Leva comes in three models: chrome and brass (ART.SC1O), chrome (ART.S1C), and copper and brass (ART.S1).

The Microcasa a Leva uses a spring-loaded piston to press water through coffee, just like the classic espresso machines of the 1950s. The brew group holds ground coffee, sealed inside a handle (portafilter) that locks in for pressurized brewing. Pulling the lever down cocks a spring while allowing water to flow into the brew chamber above the coffee. Releasing the lever uses the power of the spring to push hot water through the coffee. This pressurized brew process creates a delicious, concentrated coffee drink with a buttery mouthfeel, topped with a layer of creamy foam. A sight glass shows the water level in the boiler. A steam pressure gauge indicates whether the boiler has heated to operating temperature. The wand on the right is for steaming milk drinks.

Basic Operation

The Microcasa's 850 watt heating element brings the boiler to brew temperature in about 12 minutes. To brew right away, purge hot water through the group. The Microcasa will fully warm up in less than 30 minutes without a heating flush. Its 1.8 liter boiler is large for a home lever machine and delivers nine double shots, somewhat fewer when steaming milk drinks. Its boiler, steam wand and group are exposed, so it is not suitable for homes with small children, where it could pose a burn hazard. A thermal safety switch on the bottom of the boiler helps protect against overheating. An overpressure valve releases steam under excess pressure, helping prevent explosive rupture of the boiler or fittings.

The spring on a machine like this is powerful and can be hard for some people to operate without using two hands. If you pull the lever without the coffee handle inserted or lock the handle into the group without coffee, maintain your grip on the lever. Otherwise the lever can snap back forcefully, risking injury. Also make sure you fully lock in the portafilter. Beginners may want to keep a hand on it after releasing the lever to prevent the portafilter from accidentally turning out.

Startup doesn't require purging air from the steam boiler because a vacuum breaker releases that during warm-up. Thus it can be connected to an appliance timer (not supplied) and be ready when you wake up. Built for home use, the Microcasa uses standard household current (U.S. or European) and cannot be plumbed in. It has a grounded plug. Like any kitchen appliance that combines electricity and water it is best connected to a ground fault (GFCI) outlet for electrical safety.

The steam boiler pressure is factory set for medium roast levels. To switch coffees during a brew session, skilled users can raise or lower temperature without changing the factory setting. This "temperature surfing" is done by flushing boiler water through the group to heat it for lighter roasts, and locking in a cooled portafilter or toggling off power to achieve lower temperatures for darker roasts. If you're used to a pump machine where you set the desired temperature on a digital display, the Microcasa is an analog experience that becomes second nature with practice.

Although the Microcasa comes with a measuring spoon and oversimplified instructions for dosing pre-ground, canned coffee, this would prevent appreciating its full potential. To brew consistently, a high quality home lever espresso machine like this requires an equally high quality burr grinder capable of fine adjustments. The fineness of the grounds combine with the dose of coffee to control its resistance to hot water forced through it under pressure. Too slow or fast a flow will not extract the best flavors. The Microcasa's spring optimizes flavor extraction by starting with 8 bars of pressure that steadily declines to create its characteristic elegant shot.

Steam Performance

The Microcasa creates high quality microfoam suitable for latte art. The steam wand is activated with a quarter turn of the knob. The valve has a smooth feel to it and seals well. Once you've purged any condensed water, the steam is dry and strong, but not overpowering. The intensity of steaming varies depending on the pressurestat setting. The wand is positioned well away from the machine and has a three hole tip that makes it easy to create a swirling vortex to heat milk evenly. It's easier to approach the steam wand somewhat from the side because the portafilter locks in toward it. This creates a cramped space if approached from the front. Many competitive models have handles that turn in the other direction, avoiding this ergonomic concern.

Temperature Stability

Temperature can be adjusted to properly and consistently brew all roast levels. Boiler temperature is set with an adjustable pressurestat under the base. The adjusting screw could be easier to access, but can be managed with a very short screwdriver. As mentioned earlier, the brew temperature can be tweaked during a brew session without adjusting the pressurestat through heating flushes or by locking in a cool portafilter.

If left on for an extended time, temperature on the surface of the group climbs and stabilizes about 16°F/9°C above the temperature achieved after initial warm-up. Keep this in mind if you use the machine unmodified. You may want to lock in a cool portafilter if it's been idle for awhile. The addition of a heat break gasket also took care of this. For testing one was created out of 0.03 inch Teflon (PTFE) sheet and attached between the group and the boiler. This slowed heat transfer and made the Microcasa temperature stable over time. For more on that modification and cautions about it, see the extended review linked above.

Maintenance

The piston gaskets are easily changed by removing two screws from the top of the group, allowing you to lift out the lever and piston assembly. The Microcasa, and any espresso machine for that matter, must be monitored for mineral scale and filled with water that won't cause rapid scaling. Since the top inside of the group is dry, it should be periodically checked to keep it lubricated and ensure mineral salts aren't accumulating, which can cause the brass to degrade (see Elektra Microcasa a Leva group problems for more details). The shiny surfaces on the chrome version are easiest to maintain, followed by the chrome and brass model, which has chrome on most surfaces exposed to wear, except for the brass drip grate. Brass and copper surfaces are clearcoated to maintain their shine. If the clearcoat wears or chips and tarnish appears, the Microcasa's plated surfaces cannot be vigorously polished without a risk of wearing through to the metals underneath.

Conclusion

The Elektra Microcasa a Leva comes highly recommended for its excellent shot quality and steaming, its stunning good looks and ease of servicing. However some finishes easily tarnish. The portafilter handle locks in toward the steam wand, which is ergonomically awkward. The Microcasa is equipped with safety features to help avert shock and damage from overheating. But its exposed boiler and group and steam wand pose potential burn hazards.

    Overall: 4 stars
    Espresso Performance: 4.5 stars
    Forgiveness Factor: 3 stars
    Cappuccino Performance: 4 stars

Espresso Performance is rated relatively high because shots are mellow and layered, and shot volume is good compared to some home machines. It is smaller than with the commercial lever groups recently offered in prosumer lever machines like the Bezzera Strega or Londinium I. You can modify the Microcasa's temperature during the same brew session using simple barista techniques. The pressurestat is adjustable from under the base but access to the adjustment screw could be improved. If you prefer thick and syrupy ristrettos, you may want to consider a manual lever espresso machine like the Olympia Cremina or La Pavoni Europiccola, which can deliver higher brew pressure by pushing the lever harder. The Microcasa's maximum brew pressure is limited by the power of its spring, delivering a slowly declining pressure profile. The result is a delightfully layered taste profile and exceptional clarity while sacrificing the heavy body manual lever espresso machines can deliver.

For a lever espresso machine, the Microcasa is extremely easy to use and consistent if temperature is well controlled, meriting 3.0 stars for its Forgiveness Factor. New users or those who have only had pump machines will have to rely on dose and grind to control flow rate. This may be challenging. And pulling the lever can require significant effort for some people. The Microcasa is relatively forgiving of technique because its declining spring pressure reduces channeling or overextraction. Also a springed lever is more consistent than a manual one because it eliminates the pressure and pressure profile variables for those new to espresso or new to lever machines. You may need to modify technique for temperature control because the stock version gets hotter over time, reducing my rating by a full point, an issue that could be easily remedied by adding a heat break gasket.

Cappuccino Performance is rated high because of the quality of steamed milk. The On/Off action of the steam knob is very responsive, especially when you want to shut it down before overheating the milk. With the machine set at factory pressure steaming is only moderately fast but adequate, and for a home user this is a forgiveness factor. When the pressure is raised for lighter roasts, steaming is more robust.

Acknowledgement

This review would not be possible without the help of Jim Piccinich at 1st-Line Equipment, one of Home-Barista's long-time sponsors. Thank you, Jim, for providing one of these beautiful machines to run through its paces.

More background information...