Buyer's Guide to the Elektra A3 - Page 2

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HB (original poster)
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#11: Post by HB (original poster) »

TerryZ posted in the Marketplace about the need to drain two-thirds of the boiler each day if its water is to be used for drinking. Hmm-m. I'm not much of an Americano drinker, but I have used the tap for adding an ounce or so if the extraction is too harsh (yes, it's a cheat for an iffy shot on a gotta-go-in-one-minute morning). Before shutting down for the day, I always drain a cup or so to "freshen up" the boiler water and to even out the mineral content due to steaming (our water is naturally pretty soft and I've added a water softener too), but that's a far cry from Terry's suggested volume.

With Elektra's six-liter boiler, draining two-thirds of the contents over the course of the day would be a lot of water. Never hurts to experiment, so I let loose a waterfall to see how fast it would drain down, how well the pump kept up, and if the driptray overflowed:

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This is a photo after the first two seconds. All subsequent photos were nothing but London fog. What's curious about the water tap and is apparent in the photo is how tightly the water streams out.

Background: The majority of HX machines drain water for the tap directly from the boiler, i.e., no second heat exchanger (the Wega Lyra is one exception that comes to mind). The water is pushed out not by the pump but boiler pressure from the top layer of steam forcing water at the bottom out the tap, hence why the boiler pressure and temperature drops so precipitously. This also accounts for the "flash boiling" that is the bane of all water taps coming from the steam boiler.

The A3's water tap seems to direct the stream better than other machines I've used, but I'll need to power up one to verify it's not my fuzzy memory at work.

(anyone reading this who's feeling especially geeky is welcome to post a picture of their own machine's spray to see how it compares to the above)

Tomorrow is the Friday Espresso Lab at Counter Culture Coffee, so there'll be no entry on the A3. Wouldn't it figure that fresh beans showed up today in the mail? I might bring them in for the group and risk that I'll walk out with some left. Lino's going to unveil his doserless Super Jolly modification. Assuming he doesn't object, look for photos tomorrow night.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)
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#12: Post by HB (original poster) »

For professional baristas, the steaming power of this machine is probably familiar. But for your average home barista, it's a beast. No formal measurements yet, but the feel is just a tad less forceful than the La Marzocco 3AV at Counter Culture Coffee's espresso lab. That translates into frothing a twelve ounce pitcher in less than 15 seconds and with little room for error.

The steam tip appears to be the same threading as the Cimbali Junior. It even has similar little indentations on the side:

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The dispersion pattern is four holes pointing slightly outward. If I drink milk-based espresso, I generally choose a cappuccino. However looking further down the line, my thoughts turn to an article on latte art, which presumes that I have the ability to do what I hope to explain. So without further ado...

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As you can see, I couldn't bring myself to fill the twelve ounce cup. Stopping short and also rummaging around to find the camera led to the fallen appearance of the foam and crema. It was a little foamier than I would have preferred, as indicated by the lack of detail in the lines. Ironically the next one I poured before dashing out the door was better. I didn't bother with the camera though. There's plenty more where that came from.

A slower tip would be handy when preparing a single cappuccino with the smaller pitcher. I'll check if there's one available and report back. As is, the A3's steaming exceeds the La Spaziale S1 and Cimbali Junior by a wide margin -- and they were no pushovers.

PS: Speaking of formal measurements, Elektra and I are going to continue this casual introduction for a few more days. Then I'm busting out the wrenches and datalogging thermometer. I'm mulling over another shootout, maybe even against Geoff's fabulous La Marzocco FB-70 Hybrid at Pheasant Creek Coffee, if he's aimable to the idea. That's a lot of work though and his business is pretty brisk these days.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)
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#13: Post by HB (original poster) »

I've neglected my duties. Usually by now I would have at least a few dozen temperature profiles. But I'm enjoying learning about this machine without all the gauges and instruments. The results are good, so why mess with it now? My reviews are anything if not thorough, which includes leisurely enjoyment of the holistic experience (that's good rationalization for laziness wouldn't you say? ;)).

As I mentioned in the Puck Diagnosis thread, I've been trying my hand at taking videos of extractions. This particular extraction wasn't anything special, mostly just messing with the camera to get an idea of the required lighting and resulting video size. The espresso was pretty good, especially considering that I intentionally let the triple-basket extraction run long. Still, I wasn't pleased with the overall evenness and privately asked our member pros Ken Nye and Chris Tacy to weigh in on the diagnosis. I'm sure they won't mind me excerpting their comments...
Ken Nye wrote:It looks a bit under extracted on the left. I really believe that proper distribution is one of the most commonly overlooked issues. Lots of "tapping", level with a cross pattern and a bit of pressure, level tamp etc. Still a better shot than most though....
Chris Tacy wrote:Distribution woes. Bed has heavy density on the left side as compared to the right and in the center as compared to around the edges. I'd guess you'd taste uneven extraction and you could probably get a lot more volume out of the coffee with better distribution.
I've noticed that "distribution woes" (or similar variation thereof) is Chris' matra. Indeed he's convinced me that tamping pressure and level are important but far distant seconds to the distribution. More experimentation to follow and I'll make another video, although it may be awhile. Quiet moments are hard to schedule because our kitchen is generally a cyclone of family activity.

My earlier entry mentioned the A3's steaming power. Personally I love rocking 'n rolling steam, but I'm concerned that it may be too "intimidating" for some home baristas (at least at first) and suggested the review's sponsor, Chris Nachtrib, source some lower-volume steam tips. He contacted the director of Elektra, Federico Fregnan, who offered to send alternative steam tips to try, plus some shorter legs to bring the A3's height to US cabinet levels. I'll report on the "cheater tips" when they arrive.

Below is nice period picture showing a proud owner transporting their new Elektra. I like how it captures the moment. My sincere thanks to Mr. Fregnan for sending it:

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("La Taravisium Corina," Courtesy Elektra SRL, Copyright (c) 1956-2005, All Rights Reserved.)
Dan Kehn

Ken Nye

#14: Post by Ken Nye »

I guess it's time for me to start jumping in on this thread. I visited Chris at Chris' Coffee yesterday, ( I will post a separate "review" of my first visit with Chris', it is definitely worthy of good mention) and spent about two and a half hours pulling shots on the A3. Let me start off by saying that this is one fine HX machine.

E61 HXs have been my machine of choice for some time, so I approached the Elektra with mixed feelings. The group on this machine is Elektra's patented E61 'type' design. It does not use a manual lever, but a micro switch to activate the pump. This means no manual pre-infusion, something that I have become very accustomed to using. Elektra's group does utilize a pre-infusion chamber, one of the features that makes the E61 so special. I also like the temp adjustment present on Faema's group, which is also missing on the Elektra. As of right now, this is where my gripes end.

We opened up the casing to reveal a well thought out, and well built commercial machine. The Elektra utilizes top quality copper and plumbing work. Also present were commercial grade electronics, wiring, Sirai p-stat and a sealed control board placed under the drip tray. In my opinion this is the proper place for it, cool and dry. All of the internal components were well placed and accessible, making the machine service friendly. Last but not least, I found the machine to be very attractive. The fit and finish is excellent and the bakelite handles are a nice touch. The machine looks far better in person than it does in the photos on Elektra's web site.

I also approached this machine as is, meaning no p-stat adjustments, no pump adjustments, no boiler level adjusments, etc. The boiler pressure was reading at 1.1-1.2 bar, the group was reading at 8.5-9.0 bar. If I had to guess, I would say that extraction temps were stabilizing at >200f. Temps were a touch cooler than I am used to, but no sour notes were present. I was achieving excellent results right out of the gate. The machine behaved very much like the Faema used at our shop, except that I did notice that the group heats up very quicky in between shots. It required several ounces of pre flush after just a couple of minutes at idle. I don't regard this as a negative, just something to be aware of. We used a bottomless PF with triple basket, and it required the same amount of care when dosing and tamping as any commercial HX with a rotary pump. If done properly, the extraction was beautiful. If the prep was sloppy, channeling was present. There is not much to say about its steaming capabilities. The stock tip design was good, and with a 6ltr boiler, it was non stop microfoam all day. The latte art rivaled what we do at the shop. I was able to control the milk texture as well as on most good commercial machines (actually better than some). There was very little moisture build up in the line, just lot's of dry steam.

I will end by saying that I was impressed enough to buy an A3 for my office. It should be arriving in a couple of days. Once I set it it up and dial it in, I will submit a more detailed review of its performance.

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HB (original poster)
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#15: Post by HB (original poster) »

Thanks Ken for jumping in! I look forward to hearing what you have to say once you've got the A3 in-house. For those following along, the Legend's "temp adjustment" Ken is referring to is pictured below:

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This valve enables you to slow down the thermosyphon loop:

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(Thermosyphon circuit and heat exchanger)

This reduces the efficiency of the heat transfer from boiler-to-group, thereby lowering the resultant brew temperature.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)
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#16: Post by HB (original poster) »

Ken also shared a couple pictures of his shop's E61 Legend:

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Dan Kehn

Ken Nye

#17: Post by Ken Nye »

Dan,

Regarding the PF 'extender' provided by Elektra, I intend to shelve this item right along side parts such as single baskets and plastic tampers. Considering that I am a fan of bottomless PFs and big baskets, this part goes against my current methods. I believe that this part would be one more place to gain or lose heat, and an accumulation point for oils/crema. It would also be one more pain in the a*s part to clean out regularly. Currently, I keep an extra cup at the machine tray to use for stacking my demitasses when pulling shots. It's a pretty easy way to keep the cup close to the group, while still allowing me to watch the extraction.

Thanks for posting the pics.

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#18: Post by srobinson »

I stopped by Dan's house this morning to pick up his lever machine and oggle the A3. What a beautiful machine. I had braced myself for a huge machine, but Dan had it neatly tucked under his cabinets and it really looked at home on his counter. The machine really exudes quality, from the overall look, to the lever feel, to the wood-grained bake-lite, to the almost noiseless operation.

Dan had wanted me to try and give it a spin to see if it was giving others the outstanding shots that he was consistently getting from it. Now those that follow my posts, know that I am a die-hard lever man, but after a quick lesson, I was pulling some of the most beautiful shots that I had ever seen on a home machine...almost effortlessly.

I was extremely impressed with the mouthfeel of all 4 shots I pulled. I recall folks describing an all crema shot like drinking espresso chiffon, and this is exacty what my second shot compared to....simply amazing.

While being short on time, I was able to get a quick lesson on microfoaming on the A3 and again, either I had beginner's luck or this machine can make anyone get excellent results.

Overall, had a wonderful first experience with the machine and am now looking forward to getting a chance to learn more about it as part of this review cycle.
Steve Robinson

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HB (original poster)
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#19: Post by HB (original poster) »

As Steve reported, he and I had a good session yesterday with the A3. For an old lever guy, he really took to Elektra quickly. Given his prior experience with the La Pavoni, I honestly expected him to boil the milk in 20 seconds flat, but he textured it nicely. There were no large bubbles in sight and with a few thunks the chromed finish of the milk shown through. Stay tuned, Steve will have other opportunities to work the milk's sweetness on the A3 once we can settle on a date (he travels extensively). I look forward to his comments.

On other news, the short legs and "cheater steam tips" arrived this past Friday. First the feet:

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The original (left) leaves 2-1/2 inches of clearance and the shorter version (right) a mere 3/4 inches, allowing the A3 to easily fit under standard kitchen cabinets. The manufacturer sent two alternative steam tips to sample, the first of which is shown below:

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In order to swap out tips easily, I used a rubber O-ring to get a good finger-tight seal. The pictured tip looks like the famed "Chris' Coffee two-hole steam tip" and frothes similarly. As a rough guess, I'd say the frothing time is increased 2-3x over the stock tip, which makes for a much calmer experience to those new to the forcefulness of commercial equipment. The pressure and volume is slightly higher than on a semi-commercial machine using the same tip, except the boiler pressure gauge absolutely does not budge.

The boiler pressure of almost all machines will drop slightly while steaming unless they have low-volume tips or high-power heating elements (220V). For example, my semi-commercial machine will lose about 0.2 bar when steaming and plane out around 0.8 bar. Elektra's loses ground very slowly with the stock tip because the boiler can't replenish the lost steam as fast as it escapes. Realistically this is inconsequential since the milk would be boiling long before it loses 0.2 bar (note: the final buyer's guide will include steaming statistics).

Today I finally broke the grip the naked portafilter had on me and tried the stock double-spout portafilter. It's really attractive and has an interesting shape to the handle. Below is it next to the Rancilio commercial portafilter, my personal fave:

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The tapered and rounded handle has a very nice feel to it, sort of like polished wood. However, I prefer a longer handle and the portafilter spout extender is awkward. It retains liquid that then dribbles across the counter, reduces the clearance under the grinder, and increases the likelihood of dragging the spout tips through loose grounds. Maybe I've become too accustomed to the flat bottom of a naked portafilter. In any case, I lost my patience with the "stilts" and removed the spout extender. An inverted cup acts as an impromptu platform, similar to when I use the spoutless naked portafilter. I'll work with the stock portafilters awhile longer and report more on their beauty versus practicality.

PS: Despite my misgivings about spout extenders, I view the added vertical and front-to-back clearance of the A3 as a plus. My own machine now feels "cramped." :?
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)
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#20: Post by HB (original poster) »

Usually when I get a new machine, I begin with a series of temperature profiles to get a quick read on its thermodynamics. It reveals insights like:
  • How long until the heat exchanger goes over temperature,
  • How quickly the cooling flush takes effect,
  • General shape of the profile (slant L, humped, high spike with rapid decent, etc.)
The combination of the ease with which Elektra settles into its brew temperature and my lack of time to fiddle with instruments has delayed this initial research until this weekend. There were no surprises. Elektra has the classical HX humped profile, with a less pronounced spike at the onset:

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In keeping with the "discovery mode" of this thread, I made no attempt to produce an ideal curve. Others that I captured have a less pronounced initial hump, but the above chart demonstrates how timing is important for proper HX espresso machine operation. In this case, I was slow to lock in the portafilter to avoid accidently cutting the thermocouple wire passing over the basket lip (36 gauge type T). These extra seconds pushed the temperature spike up a degree or so. Subsequent measurements showed a gentler rise and fall, but the overall shape remained the same. It should go without saying, but the implication of this behavior is that you must pay attention to the critical moment between the cooling flush and the beginning of the extraction, a brief period lasting around 10 seconds. Let your mind wander for a half minute and the temperature will be way-y-y off...

I don't plan to spend a lot of time with in-basket temperature measurements this time around. It's a great diagnostic tool and saves time, but in Elektra's case, it has only confirmed what the taste has been saying for the last few weeks. Still, it could be interesting to do a long series of back-to-back profiles to measure the consistency under load. The Cimbali Junior versus La Marzocco Linea group taste test served that purpose last time, but was a lot of work to organize. Hard to believe it's been less than a month with the A3 and there's at least another month of research to go.
Dan Kehn