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By Jim Schulman
Call it a mid-life crisis. I've always had my eye on the Microcasa Semi Automatica, Elektra's heat exchanger espresso machine for the home. It's beautiful. It's expensive. It looks terminally impractical. And yet I wondered, is this an espresso machine I'd only use for 30 minutes on Sundays for fun, or is it a solid performer that would add beauty to my everyday espresso making? I finally got my chance to find out.
But before getting to the Semiautomatica's performance, allow me to share a short history of home espresso machines so you can fully appreciate the Semiautomatica's unique design.
In 1977, Ulka made the first commercially successful vibratory pumps suitable for espresso; the first home pump-driven espresso machines by Quickmill and Gaggia quickly followed. Their very small boilers with groups integrated into the base set the tone for home espresso machines. Elektra joined this market in 1982 with a completely different design. The company has been making commercial espresso machines since 1947 and a high-end spring-powered lever espresso machine since 1961, the Microcasa a Leva. The Elektra Micro Casa Semi Automatica was their first heat exchanger machine for the home. It used the base and boiler from the Leva (slightly enlarged since then) and the group and heat exchanger from Elektra's commercial machines of the time.
The result is utterly unique. In order to maintain the "naked" design that recalled the earliest espresso machines, they placed the water tank over the boiler in a metal bowl, left the piping exposed, and covered the three-way solenoid valve located above the group with a decorative bell. This renders the machine a piece of espresso sculpture. With the exception of Kees van der Westen designs, it's the most visually striking espresso machine on the market.
Over twenty years since its introduction, the Semiautomatica has remained unique. As the market for home espresso matured, other companies also produced home heat exchanger machines, but these were derived from small catering machines and looked far more conventional. If one imagines espresso machines as automobiles, they would range from subcompact little home machines to Mack truck four groupers. The Elektra Semi Automatica doesn't fit anywhere along this continuum, because it's the motorcycle of espresso machines. It's as light and narrow as a standard home machine, has the drink making capacity of a small commercial machine, and has none of the conventional comforts: no large driptray, no water tap, no autofill, not even an external casing to cover the extremely hot boiler.
So along with the usual questions about espresso machines, comes the one that always gets asked when buying a motorcycle: "Is it practical?" The short answer is that it is entirely practical for some people, and impractical for others. The Semiautomatica's heated parts are exposed, and touching almost any of its hot surfaces will burn the hand. So, like other kitchen appliances, curious children have to be warned not to touch. Accident prone people who have never used an espresso machine before should think twice; those who have prior experience will be fine. The other consideration is its 23 inch height (21.5 inches with the glass Murano ball instead of the eagle). Although its ten inch round base takes up very little counterspace, it won't fit under 18 inch cabinets.
My sense is that many of the people who would find the Semiautomatica a very satisfying machine don't consider it when shopping in this price range. The review will make clear what the virtues and limitations of the design are. In addition, the guide's appendices document the machine's specifications.
The machine is packaged as a consumer product, coming completely assembled in a brightly printed cardboard box with plastic carrying handle and protected by a polystyrene foam shell. Unlike most Italian espresso machines, the manual is a properly printed booklet, competently translated into all the usual languages. The included double spout portafilter is their standard commercial model. Like the rest of the machine, the portafilter is as decorative as the machine with a resin finished handle and the raised "flying K" Elektra logo on the neck.
The pictures don't quite capture the presence of this piece of mechanical sculpture. I can't speak for all in terms of aesthetics, but the Semiautomatica's visual dominance draws your eye the moment you enter the room. When I had my standard home machine, a Solis SL70, the first thing people noticed in the kitchen were the pots and pans. When I got the Isomac Tea with its exposed E61 group, it was noticed first. The Versalab M3 grinder, with its striking mortar and pestle design, later trumped the E61 group. But the M3 never stood a chance once the Elektra moved in. Short of a Caesar's Palace buffet held up by nude show girls, I doubt there's anything that would displace the Semiautomatica from the top of the eye catching heap.
Since the user manual is well written, I don't need to cover the basics of starting the machine up or operating it. However, I do have one suggestion—initially fill the boiler with reverse-osmosis (RO) or distilled water. The boiler fill is manual, so no minerals are required and the RO or distilled water will never scale. Since the boiler size is ample and does not need to be constantly refilled, it can be done whenever the water tank empties, again using a few ounces of RO or distilled water. If you do this, you can use the best tasting, neutral or moderately hard water for making espresso, and descale the group and heat exchanger just like any other home machine without having to worry about the sealed boiler (note: Descaling agents can damage the clearcoat finish; any spillage should be wiped away immediately with a soft dry cloth and the surface rinsed with a damp terry cloth).