Buyer's Guide to the Elektra A3

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HB
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#1: Post by HB »

The star of next buyer's guide, the Elektra A3, is due to arrive next week...

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I got a see sneak peek of it at the SCAA conference in Seattle. Whoa, she's a big girl!

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beta14ok

#2: Post by beta14ok »

Looks like it has similar steam and hot water valves as the Isomac Mondiale. I like 'em! ......easy on and shut off fast.

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

You're right, the A3 does have a lot in common with the Isomac Mondiale like the center-weighted toggles, rotary pump, plumbed driptray, and exposed group.

A couple big differences spec-wise between the A3 and Mondiale are the boiler size (6.0L versus 2.5L) and amperage (20A versus 15A). I asked the manufacturer about schematics since I suspect there are also internal differences that will affect how it operates (e.g., heat exchanger volume, injector length, etc). I'll start from the guidelines in How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love HXs and revise them for the A3.
Dan Kehn

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beta14ok

#4: Post by beta14ok »

Sheesh!......six liters?


By thunder....what a whopper!

cappadoc

#5: Post by cappadoc »

Dan,
I love your reviews. Glad to see you started a forum. Can't wait to see this review. I'm currently fighting a bad case of upgrade fever. I have a cheap pump now, and I am using your site for reference simply because you only mention machines I would like to buy. No wading through pages about items I'm not interested in. Thanks,
Jeff Johnson

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

Jeff,

I appreciate the kinds words and encouragement. As I often say, writing reviews is interesting as long as (a) it's top-notch equipment, and (b) I can get feedback -- whether good or bad. Since inquires about the site were on the rise and I was increasingly frustrated over my inability to reach the HB readership, creating a forum was an easy decision.

If you have suggestions on what you'd like to see on the site (e.g., espresso machines you would like to see reviewed, article ideas, etc.), feel free to start another thread. In the meantime, good luck with the upgrade fever. :)

PS: Look for a killer article coming next week from Jim Schulman, entitled "The Home Barista's Guide to Espresso." Based on its length, I was tempted to entitle it "The Insanely Long Espresso Primer" in recognition of his earlier Water FAQ. I resisted the urge.
Dan Kehn

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

The Elektra A3 has arrived. It's a big machine. :shock:

It comes shipped on a pallet to avoid the risk of the UPS gorillas bouncing it off the end of their truck (yes, it happens). That adds to the shipping cost, but it still arrived in only two days, delivered to our front door by a freight truck. I would have happily returned the pallet to the driver, but I need it for shipping back...

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Usually Chris' techs bench test each espresso machine before shipping. I'm pretty confident it will go without a hitch, so I asked them to skip it. The only drawback to that decision is now I'm off to the hardware store for some fittings (Watts 3/8") and plug since the power cord terminates with three bare wires.

Just a quick photo of the dual gauge. Nice how they have recommended pressure ranges. More manufacturers should do that, it would save a lot of questions.

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The Elektra specifications claim the unit is 17.3" tall, so I expected it would fit under my cabinets, which are just shy of 18" off the countertop. Well, apparently they neglected to include the taller legs, since the machine is in fact just a tad over 18" tall. Darn it... :?

<insert pause while Dan reflects on his options... >

Fortunately I still have good 'ol Junior in house. Chris was antsy to get the Cimbali Junior back after I published the buyer's guide (understandably so, there's a good chunk of money tied up), but agreed to let me hold onto it for a month or so for side-by-side comparisons. Afterall, the Elektra A3 and the Cimbali Junior are near the same price point, thus some buyers are going to want to know how they compare. Well, as fortune would have it, they share the same bolt size for the legs, 'cept Junior's are sizeable while Elektra's are not.

Presto-chango, Elektra has Junior's legs and he's sporting a new set of very flashy chrome legs. Looks pretty cool, although I can't help thinking that Junior looks like he's cross-dressing (think about it... ladies' stockings :o). Now both are happily US kitchen-height friendly.

Even though I had seen the A3 at the Elektra booth at the SCAA conference, I was skeptical of the claimed six-liter boiler. It just didn't seem a large enough case, although the machine is definitely larger than Junior. I doubt no more, check out this bad boy:

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Uninsulated... that's gonna generate some serious heat I bet. Usually I install a timer to avoid wasting energy and to save the air conditioner the extra work in summertime. But Elektra's wanting 20 amps and my heavy-duty timer tops out at 15 amps. For now I'll run it 24/7, calculate its warmup time, and weigh other options.

Now off to Home Depot...
Dan Kehn

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#8: Post by HB (original poster) »

Hooked up the Elektra A3 without incident, but no time to check it out. Adjusted the pump pressure this morning to 8.5 bar and did a series of six shots. Good news naked portafilter fans, a Verna original fits without problem. Here's one of the first extractions:

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You could practically park a SUV under the portafilter and yet I had trouble focusing the camera. The evenness looks good and the crema was abundant, especially for "test beans" (ten days post-roast). The taste improved with a slightly longer flush and short rebound. I'll save the steaming report for another entry; for now suffice it to say that it's get-outta-town fast.

I want to recreate the new owner experience, so I only skimmed the owner's manual (heh heh) and started pulling shots. No thermometer thermocouples, no measuring cups, just observation of the "water dance" as described in How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love HXs. For the most part Elektra seems to behave like E61s that I've tested, except the rebound is very fast after the flush. Probably has something to do with that big a** boiler of hers. :shock:

My earlier entry was right about the A3 emitting heat -- the cups aren't warm, they are h-h-hot! It's still reasonably tempid these days so I'm not going to worry about it. Later I'll look into a 20 amp timer and maybe some boiler insulation. I hesitate to cover the top to slow the heat rise, since that would push up the interior temperature. Fortunately there's very little electronics in the main casing; the auto-fill circuitry looks to be under the driptray similar to the Cimbali Junior's location.
Dan Kehn

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#9: Post by HB (original poster) »

Arrgh-h!

Thanks to JonR (aka Obi-wan Kenobi), I'm now hooked on triple basket bottomless portafilters!!! Given the A3's huge clearance under the grouphead, you can imagine the freefall the stream must endure on its way to the cup. I've resorted to holding the espresso cup up to meet it. However, if I'm in a rush, I pull out a handy travel mug designed just for the occasion:

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Perfect for that quad-shot macchiato to start the day! :shock:

It's not shown in the manufacturer's A3 photo at the top of this thread, but the stock portafilters include 1.25" extenders to the spout, reducing the spout-to-driptray drop to about 2.75". Will the extra length of metal draw off heat from the espresso even with a good flush beforehand? Need to check...

I'm wondering if the resulting "portafilter stilts" will be conducive to my style of tamping (this inquiry will have to wait until I break the peer-induced hold the triple basket has on me). That is, I prefer to tamp with the portafilter on the edge of the countertop to avoid dragging the spouts through any loose grounds. Technically a quick wipe of the spout ends before locking in would pass muster in barista competitions, but I go by the assumption that all horizontal surfaces are germ magnets.

(...and now a moment of calm rationalization...)

By the way, all my chatter about triple baskets isn't a declaration that every shot will improve with it. Matt Riddle and Chris Tacy have independently suggested that Black Cat is better as such, so I have professionals backing me up. What's scary though is that three back-to-back triple espressos didn't even rattle me a little this morning.
Dan Kehn

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

The big appeal of E61-type lever machines is the coolness. I jokingly refer to this as THE REALLY BIG BUTTON factor. But for an E61, it is functional and cool at the same time. To appreciate the purpose of the lever for an E61, gaze at this patent diagram:

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The lever is shown in the upper diagram; it turns the cam labeled #6 in the lower diagram. If you wish to learn the ins-and-outs, read this patent excerpt. Warning: It's a bit dense. Plan on reading it at least six times, keeping in mind that the A3's group shares some characteristics of this design, but more in appearance than function.

Returning to the A3, note its brew activation lever:

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When I saw the teenie-tiny picture from the Elektra website, I wondered what the heck the cam lever was doing way up high on the grouphead. Once I had it in-house and the covers off, I saw the bare truth:

IT'S A REALLY BIG LEVER THAT DOESN'T DO MUCH OF ANYTHING

Note: You should click the first link of this entry to get the joke.

My mind reeled at the ways I would chide Elektra for creating such an elaborate way of a pushing a button. I mean puh-leez, a six inch woodgrain handle to flick a microswitch? Can you say "a little over the top"?

However, keeping an open mind is a key part of writing a quality review, so I mentally moved on and gave no further thought to its prominent protuberance. Ironically my wife commented later the same day, "Hey, I really like those woodgrain knobs and levers. It's much prettier than Junior."

Granted, she's bigger and unquestionably more stylish.

Like any self-respecting owner, I only skimmed the owner's manual (heh heh). I haven't checked, but it should point out the importance of verifying the lever is in the UP position before plugging the machine in and turning it on. Otherwise you'll be surprised to find it doesn't work like other lever-type machines, where DOWN means OFF. Well, Dan got a bit of a surprise, especially since the driptray was off. Fortunately my lightening-fast reaction was to pull the plug, not fiddle with the switch. The GFI circuit didn't even get a chance to trip.

To the point of today's entry: Pretty as the fancy lever is, it ain't just for show. Somebody at Elektra thought to position it near the steam toggle switch and align it such that your hand is naturally right next to it when steaming. Flipping the lever down / flicking the switch of most machines to cut off the pump requires you reach away from where you're focusing while frothing. That's miffed me more than once when I've accidentally injected a splotch of big bubbles.

Not with the A3. Your hand is nary an inch away. Flick one, pump off. Flick two, steam off. Thunk and pour. Today I poured one of the best rosettas yet. Sorry, not publish worthy (close).

Big Elektra Lever, today you earned yourself a "good idea" emoticon! :idea:
Dan Kehn