Buyer's Guide to the Elektra A3 - Page 3

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

As Ken Nye mentioned earlier in this thread, he bought the A3 for his office. He and I have been exchanging notes offline on managing brew temperature, getting the best extraction, etc. I don't always explicitly mention it in buyer's guides, but I generally corroborate my findings with owners during the research phase. It saves me time and adds further support (or not!) to the guide's recommendations. There aren't many A3 owners, so it's great to have Ken going through a discovery phase similar to my own. Look to hear more about that soon...

After months of using bottomless portafilters, I've come to strongly prefer flat-bottomed (or nearly flat) portafilters. The one for the Cimbali Junior is the best in this regard and also has impeccable finishing. Any cast markings are filed down and buffed to a mirror finish. It also has a heavy, thick bowl for heat retention and all-around manly-man feel.

Elektra doesn't go for the industrial look, instead opting for old-world charm:

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It has the Elektra eagle on the top of the handle. If you look carefully, you'll see casting lines in the photo above. I suppose they were unavoidable given the matte finish of the bowl in compliment of the handle. Still, the lines are disappointing in light of the otherwise flawless exterior of the A3.

Notice that I changed the portafilter spout to the squared-off La Marzocco open-style spout. The narrow distance between the spout ends allows it to easily catch the two streams in a single cup, plus as an the added bonus, the spout acts as a nice "ledge" for tamping on the countertop's edge. This avoids the possibility of picking up grinds and who-knows-what by tamping with the spouts directly on the countertop. Even with this minor modification, this fancy Elektra portafilter hasn't surplanted my fave, the Rancilio commercial. It would have had a chance at winning my affections if Elektra's portafilter handle was longer. Too bad, it's really pretty.

In reading this thread, you may have noticed that I hold my specific thoughts on a test machine "close to the vest." Most of that choice is in keeping an open mind, and a small part of it is an adversion to making declarations I might later have to retract. It's my cautious nature, and anyway, I see no need to rush to judgement. A lot of money is involved for those considering machines in the Elektra A3's price range, so a few months' of careful evaluation doesn't seem excessive.

That said, Chris Tacy's recent write-up of the Mia does highlight something I've noticed in my own limited use of commercial equipment: They are simply easier to use than semi-commercial espresso machines. A dual boiler obviously has the advantage of simplified temperature management, but even the commercial HXs are noticeably more "civilized" than their less pedigreed colleagues. The unadulterated commercial experience in your kitchen is indeed alluring and I rue the day these high-end heavyweights must be packed up for their new owners.

Why don't I buy one, you ask? Well, it's not only an issue of money, but spousal agreement. My wife agrees that Elektra is the most attractive of all the machines I've evaluated, but it's too imposing for "her kitchen." Lest I forget, it's her realm and I'm an invitee only by her good graces. I say this in jest, since the truth is she's been exceedingly tolerant and supportive of my projects. :D
Dan Kehn

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

What one does for research...

I made several decaf straight espressos tonight and one cappuccino. Pulling a good decaf is always more difficult and can expose extraction problems that don't surface with the more forgiving regular coffee, so I always include some decaf in the series. I'm not fond of decaffeinated coffees, but the A3 handled it as nicely as one could hope for. The extractions were even and made for enjoyable drinks. The third shot had no traces of bitterness and flirted with some sweetness.

Notes: Both the regular and decaf were roasted this past Tuesday. The decaf ground 2-1/2 clicks finer and I pulled them shorter than the regular, extracting one ounce double ristrettos.
Dan Kehn

La Marzocco · Home: customized for espresso aficionados
Sponsored by La Marzocco · Home
Ken Nye

#23: Post by Ken Nye »

It's time to start posting some of my experiences with the A3. I installed the machine about a week ago, and I am starting to get a feel for it. These initial reports will be kept brief. As time rolls on and I become more in sync with the A3, I will report more extensively.

On an aside, don't expect the kind of review that was recently posted by Chris on the Mia..... That dude is a writing machine! To put it delicately, my writing skills tend to... suck. Kudos to Chris, that was an excellent article.

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Currently I am running the A3's boiler at 1.1 bar. It utilizes a Sirai p-stat, so the band runs about .2 bar, (it kicks in at .9 and cuts off at 1.1 bar). At this setting I am acheiving stable temps between 202 - 203F. Temp drop off during extraction is minimal, aprox. 1 - 1.5F. I won't waste time describing the temp curves in greater detail, because my findings were almost identical to those shown on Dan's chart (shown earlier).

It is important to note that the Elektra group heats up very quickly, and an initial flush is required prior to every shot. After any idle period, 8 - 10 seconds seems to do the trick. During constant use a shorter flush of 3 - 7 seconds is still necessary, depending on how quickly you prep your next shot. The water is fairly easy to "read" during the flush, initially the flow is violent (boiling), but will taper down to an appropriate stream when the temp is right. It is more dramatic than the flow on a traditional E61 group.

BTW- Group pressure is set at 9.0 bar. I experimented at 8.0, 8.5, and 9.0 bar. The latter produced the best results in the cup. I found better body and mouth feel with the higher pressure. It also seemed to produce a better overall extraction.

The group screen on the A3 is unlike the common E61 type. It screws in to the group and is not held in place by the gasket (hopefully elektra offers various gasket sizes). Upon removal, I found that there is also a brass "diffuser disc" behind the screen, which is held in place by the same center screw. It has ten disperstion holes in a circular pattern. The group itself distributes the water through four holes. It seems that a very small chamber is formed where the disc and group meet. This assembly is very easy to clean, more so than a typical E61. As far as performance is concerned, the center screw and lack of dispertion holes in the center of the group seem to cause a bit of (mild) under extraction in the center of the puck. I will report more on this when I switch to a naked PF. My old style Faemas do not fit this group, a Rancilio is on the way. On an up note, the diffuser disc is a customizer's wet dream. I see several custom discs in my future utilizing various hole patterns as well as different depths. Speaking of depth, the screen on the A3 sits a bit deeper in the PF than on an E61, making it sensitive to overfilling the basket, (something that I am accustomed to doing). This is not a negative, just something to get used to. Also, the screen on the A3 is convex, and performs noticeably better with a convex tamper.

As far as shot quality goes, the A3 has been impressive. I have been getting results nearly on par with my Faema E61. The body and mouthfeel have been excellent. The complexity of the blend that I work with has been coming through with little loss. I will report on this topic more extensively in the near future as I get a better feel for this machine. I would like to gain a better understanding of the pre infusion process used by the A3, and hopefully 'tune' it to my advantage. With time, I also hope to gain more control over the temp range throughout the extraction, allowing me to tweak my shots and bring out various qualities in different blends.

The steaming is equal to most commercial machines that I have used. The stock four hole tip is excellent, and I see no need to change it. Nuff said.

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More to come...

Ken Nye

#24: Post by Ken Nye »

Earlier in this thread it was mentioned that this machine was installed in my office. Actually, it has found it's way into my kitchen (thank god my wife loves espresso). The reason that I bring this up is that it will be installed in my new office in the fall, and I am extending an early invite to any HB members who might find themselves on the northshore of Long Island, NY to stop by and play with the A3. We will be building a small lab at our office with two or three machines connected and running, as well as an open bench for testing new machines. I have been wanting to do this for quite some time, a place to test equipment, cup new blends, and create new products without the pressure of dealing with customers lined up out the door. Although we will not be open to the public, the door is always open to HB folks.

More to come...

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#25: Post by HB (original poster) »

Ken's comments prompted me to pull down the A3's diffuser disk, dispersion screen, and gasket for a picture. The brass diffuser disk is shown with the puck-side facing upward towards the camera and the dispersion screen is shown with the puck-side facing away:

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The diffuser disk design is similar to the La Spaziale S1's, except the A3's is larger in diameter. Elektra's screen is slightly domed and sets within the ridged circle of the diffuser. The gasket is actually a big O-ring, similar to the Elektra Microcasa a Leva's. A quick tug with a dull knife tip brought it down for cleaning.

I've chemical backflushed the A3 a few times since its arrival, but it's been over twenty shots since the last one. There was a thin line of coffee build-up along the perimeter of the O-ring and a smidgen under the edge of the dispersion screen. An E61-type dispersion screen might be a teenie bit cleaner after similar usage because it has no ridges to trap coffee, but I have no complaints with either.

I agree with Ken that the shape of the screen seems to favor a convex tamper. Early on I noted good evenness of the water dispersion over the surface of the puck. The water jet breaker on my own machine produces a more "ragged" stream, but on the other hand, the space behind the screen seems larger, resulting in a higher tolerance of minimal puck-to-screen clearance. Locking / unlocking the portafilter with a dime on top of the puck and then checking for a slight impression gives the A3 optimal space for even dispersion / puck expansion, leading to a nice even extraction with lots of body and mouthfeel.

PS: Ken, I will absolutely stop by your shop / test lab when I'm in the area. Gotta find an excuse to drive the family northward...
Dan Kehn

TimothyJohn

#26: Post by TimothyJohn »

Dan,

I'm very glad and excited to see that you are doing a review of the A3. I know that it's been on your short list to review. As you know I recently purchased one in late March. Unfortunately, I am still in the process of building the butler's pantry in which the machine will be housed. When I received the machine, I made some modifications to the design of the room - one of which was to make sure that the machine and the grinder had its own part of the counter top space. Also, that the beauty of the machine and the wonderful emblem on the back would not be hidden. It will be its own espresso bar in the pantry. I'm doing the work myself so it's taken some time. However, the machine will be directly plumbed and tied directly into its own circuit. I'm just itching to get that machine up and running, but will be looking forward to your reviews in the meantime.

Thanks.

Tim

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#27: Post by HB (original poster) »

Tim,

Thanks for the comments and encouragement. BTW, you're certainly a man of stronger will than I. If I had purchased the A3 in March, there's no way I could patiently wait for renovations to complete! But feel free to post your thoughts on your A3 in this thread when you've got it online.
Dan Kehn

Cerini Coffee & Gifts: official US importer for Olympia Express
Sponsored by Cerini Coffee & Gifts
TimothyJohn

#28: Post by TimothyJohn »

Dan,

There isn't a day that goes by when I'm not thinking about that machine. I've taken it out of the box many times just to look inside and out. I've read the manual front to back (in the languages I know). However, the pantry will house the machine, a sink, and a dishwasher, as well as cabinets for serving ware. I'm building them myself, so it will all be custom made. However, you have now given me more inspiration to get things moving along.
The machine is incredibly built, without sacrificing aesthetics. There was so little information out there about the A3, that I'm just really psyched that you are doing the research.
I plan to document the process (through writing and pictures) of creating this room around this machine, setting up the machine, and finally working with the machine.

Tim

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srobinson
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#29: Post by srobinson »

As we start the next phase of testing on the A3, it moves over to my house for a full installation. Now I am not saying that Dan does not do a thorough test, but drains running into the sink and water lines springing up out of the existing sink holes just will not fly at my house...thus a proper install was in order.

As I state in my subject line, I really love my wife and as part of this test I have now added to my list of the sexiest things that she has ever said to me. The list to date tops with:

1) Honey, you need a larger TV....when I was pining for a German Loewe HD TV
2) Honey, go ahead and buy a Porsche...when I was pining for my 911

and now:

3) Honey, go ahead and drill through my Corian so you can try out a new espresso machine.

She is the perfect woman.

So with the spousal green light the installation began... Fortunately drilling Corian or other solid surface counter tops is very straight forward. Pilot hole to start the hole saw, I chose a 2" hole for the water and drain line and capped off the hole with a computer-line hole collar.

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I used masking tape just in case the bit skipped, but everything went fine and in 30 seconds we were through.

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This is the first permanent install that I have done at this house so I used one of the kits from Chris' Coffee that had the T valves, stopcocks, softener, carbon filter and pressure regulator all together.

The next step in the install was the drain line. In running this under sink, where I had both garbage disposal and dishwasher draining, I decided to install a new drain neck between the two sinks and after the disposal. After a little creative PVC work, I had this ready to go.

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I decided to tie into the drain line that Dan already had on the machine with 1/2" poly weave tubing and made sure that I had a good drop on the line to drain correctly. Set up was quick and began testing the drain and in short notice had water all over the countertop. Made sure the tray was not running over, checked the level of the machine to give it a slight forward tilt and kept getting water. Turns out that there was a loose connection under the machine where the poly connects to the copper drain pipe. I had assumed that this was tight from Dan's install, but I was getting leaks. A quick tightening of the collar and she was draining away. I was using the short legs on the machine, so it fits very low to the counter top. If doing the same, you need to make sure that you have the hose clamp screw off to the side so you don't risk scratching your countertops. I also ran my drain line very tight, so another disadvantage to this approach is that you must disconnect if you are pulling the machine out to work on it if you have it installed under a counter.

Next, the focus was on the water line was very straight forward. I used 3/8" line which Dan suggested in order to provide strong water feed and Dan had noticed some line noise coming into play with one of his 1/4" systems. I did a brass connection fitting with a poly T off the cold water line and then set up the following order: Cut-off valve, Softener filter, Carbon Filter, Pressure Regulator, Cut-off valve, machine water line. Using the plastic tubing in a snap and give you the capability to do some some temporary runs to check out the system before everything is buried under the sink. You can see the basic run here:

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Dan stopped over at this point and we dialed in the final line pressure at roughly 20lbs and double-checked the brew pressure gauge reading at the group head with a portafilter gauge. Dan had done a nice trick on his gauge where it is not fully tight, so that you can simulate a shot coming through to eliminate any false pressure.

I finished up with the final filter placement and cut the final lines and I was fully operational and the A3 was in its new temporary home commanding the countertop.

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Steve Robinson

LMWDP #001

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srobinson
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#30: Post by srobinson »

With the A3 now plumbed in we start to take a look on how this baby fits into a home environment. While we all dream of a commercial machine at home, I hopefully can give you some insight as to whether this is practical and what some of the trade offs are.

With a clean install, the A3 now sits on the counter in all her glory. The dimensions on this machine are:

Width: 13.5 inches, Depth: 19.5 inches and Height: 17 inches, weighing in at a whopping 77lbs. To give you a rough idea of what you are dealing with, the template that I used to see how much counter space I needed had to be created from two sheets of newspaper. It's big for a single unit, but it is livable. Here is a wider shot of my install that shows it with Rocky and my 6 burner Viking cook top.

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Now with the placement that I used, one of the disappointing factors you will deal with, is that one of the most beautiful features of the machine will be hidden from sight...and that is the great logo on the back.


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To me that is like buying a set of scudera shields for your Ferrari and mounting them in the trunk...but I digress.

There are many features that I really liked on first glance on the A3. They added some nice touches, starting with the cup tray on top. There are actually two vent trays. They neatly fit at an offset so you get air and heat circulating, without the risk of water from your cups dripping down into the machine.

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I was also very pleased with the quality and ergonomics of the controls. The dual dial was sharp and well marked, the pull lever had a nice feel and click during operation and I really liked the steam and water levers.

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These were very straightforward to use and I felt that they almost gave me another set of hands, since I did not have to dedicate the finger control that dials require to operate them. They are multi-directional and can be finessed when full power is not needed. The wood grained bake-lite was a nice feature as well. Now I'm thinking how to get these in Carbon Fiber.

The final feature that I will mention in this post is the quiet operation of this machine.

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The front plate says Super Silent and it is. Most of the time you are looking for the front light or putting your hand on the side to see if she's on. It will wake up to refill the tank and you hear the pump during full operation, but it made less average noise than my refrigerator and its automatic systems.

So on initial inspection the commercial is fitting in nicely in a modern kitchen environment. It carries a big footprint, but the fit and finish, sound, heat generation, and basic operation do not ask for significant sacrifice. When I compare this with other friends who have brought commercial appliances in-house (AGA ranges, commercial stoves etc), the A3 required almost none of those trade offs.
Steve Robinson

LMWDP #001