Elektra Semiautomatica
Espresso Performance

I was sold on the Semiautomatica when I pulled its first single shot. It and the ones that followed have consistently been in godshot territory.

Shot being made What is a "godshot"? It means different things to different espresso lovers. In my opinion, espresso smells better and has better mouthfeel than regular brewed coffee, but espresso made from most good high grown coffees at light to medium roasts tastes over-amplified and distorted. This is why most satisfying everyday espressos are blends, and why even great single origin espressos typically taste exotic and unbalanced. Some home lever machines do a better job conveying the undistorted taste of high grown coffee, but since they use lower extraction pressures, it comes at the expense of body and crema. My idea of a godshot is an espresso that conveys the taste of great coffees, clearly, completely, and undistorted, with the full power and mouthfeel of the classic espresso. To this day, my quest for godshots remains mostly unfulfilled.

The Semiautomatica's single espressos do the best job I've ever sampled with this tradeoff. The body isn't quite as dense or the taste quite as strong as from an E61 like my Isomac Tea, but they are better than from home levers. The flavor of some of my favorite high grown coffees is actually better from the Semiautomatica than from a brewed cup, being both more powerful and equally balanced tasting. Flavors that are fugitive in the cup, that one has to grasp after to vaguely discern, come marching by as if brightly lit in these remarkable singles. So I strongly recommend the Semiautomatica to those who value lighter roasted espresso blends or single origin coffees (SOs) and clarity of taste. My recommendation is more tempered for those who prefer darker roasts and for whom body and crema are all important.

However, the Semiautomatica's espresso prowess presented a problem while researching this review. By the standards of most US espresso experts and by my experience with espresso machines, the Elektra should make mediocre shots, not glorious ones. The car versus motorcycle analogy applies—in trying to explain why the shots are great, I feel like a four wheel car expert trying to explain just how a two wheel motorcycle can stay balanced. There's a very basic principle of espresso extraction I'm just not getting. The Appendices document my attempts to explain this enigma. But for those who simply want to enjoy exceptional espresso without puzzlingly over what makes it happen, continue reading the next section.

Pulling Shots by the Numbers

The machine has a vacuum breaker, so it can be turned on and off with an appliance timer or run 24/7. It needs about 45 minutes to warm up completely. Once the machine is hot, the boiler cycle averages out to the equivalent of 120 Watts constant load. Below are the steps to making an espresso or cappuccino with the Elektra Semiautomatica:

  1. Make absolutely sure to keep the dose low enough so the puck does not expand into the shower screen. There is no space above the screen, and shot quality degrades if there is no brewing space above the puck. In the supplied single basket, the maximum dose is 10 grams, in the double, it is 16 grams. For more coffee, switch to an La Marzocco triple basket, which can be dosed up to 20 grams.

  2. Remove the portafilter, dose, and tamp. Lock the portafilter back into the group, paying attention to the group clearance—it's a tight fit.

  3. Just prior to start a shot, run the pump to do a cooling flush for two to four seconds beyond the point the flash boiling stops, usually just over two ounces (if these terms are unfamiliar, see How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to love HXs).

    This is the same for shots after long idle periods or when making them in quick succession; see the Appendices for detailed temperature management instructions. Because of the tiny drip tray and missing cup warmer, I use a one-cup deli tub to augment the driptray. Simply put your demitasse into the tub and flush into the cup to heat it. Since the flush is so quick, this can be done after grinding and dosing while packing the portafilter.

  4. Once the flush is done, dump the cup contents into the tub, mount the portafilter, get the cup into place (there is almost no dwell time), and start the extraction.

  5. If you're making a cappuccino, you can start steaming immediately.

    When making short milk drinks that require less than six ounces of milk, you can start steaming after the extraction begins and finish before it completes. There is almost no condensate in the wand, so there's no need to purge it. After steaming, the wand should be wiped and purged.

  6. Don't forget the cleaning flush!

    The group holds very little water, and the channel for the group gasket is deep and narrow. This means it needs frequent cleaning. Do a cleaning flush after every shot, and use a group brush after every session (use the deli tub or equivalent to catch the grounds and dirty water). Once a day, backflush the machine without cleaners two or three times. Backflush with cleaner every week or two. The driptray will easily hold a day's worth of three-way valve discharge if one uses the tub for the flushes, so it only needs to be emptied once a day.

    Note: The finish is delicate, clean it using a damp terry cloth. Prolonged exposure to water will cause black spotting of the clearcoat finish. Therefore, all water stains should be removed.

The water tank is good for about eight to ten shots before needing a refill. The boiler should be kept filled to the point where the sight glass shows ½ to ¾ full. To avoid scaling problems, refill the boiler with RO or distilled water. When the time nears to refill it, let the water tank empty out, or use a plastic cup (to avoid scratches) to empty it completely. Fill the boiler slightly above the level where the pipe draws off water with distilled or RO water and then refill the boiler and tank with your usual water.

All in all, the small drip tray and neat-freak group add maybe 15 to 30 seconds per shot compared to E61 or other semi-commercial machines. The time penalty rises for any pourover machine the further one is removed from a sink, and particularly one like the Elektra, which requires access to one for every shot. The manual boiler fill means you must pay attention to the level tube, but it's an overall time-saver when it comes to descaling. It also removes one of the more common maintenance headaches of commercial machines—malfunctions in the auto-fill circuits—and means no espresso is ever ruined by an inopportune boiler refill dropping the brew pressure midway through the extraction.

Is it fun to use?

The Elektra has a few minor ergonomic inconveniences when making shots. The group bell has a rather narrow channel for the portafilter. You have to make certain it is horizontal, otherwise it won't lift into the group. It may take a few days to get used to this. If the counter material is somewhat slick, the Semiautomatica, being light, may shift when locking in the portafilter or pushing the brew button. I cut a piece of acoustic printer mat to fit under the base. This stopped all slips and had the added bonus of deepening the pump's sound a little.

A bigger inconvenience is the tiny driptray and absence of a cup warmer. As described above, the cups need to be preheated by flushing into them. You can dump this water into the driptray, along with the post shot clean up, or into a separate bowl, which works better for multiple shots. If the driptray is used for this, it has to be emptied after every shot, otherwise it can hold the three way discharge of about 10 shots before needing to be emptied. The final inconvenience is the lack of a water tap. You'll either need to steam cold water, or have another hot water source for Americanos. I don't make Americanos, so I don't miss it. Steaming the four ounces of water required for an Americano will take about 18 seconds.

The feel of making shots on the Semiautomatica is great. This is mostly due to the beauty of the machine—it's simply more satisfying to work with beautiful things. But there is another odder element. The boiler rumbles quietly when the heat runs, which is through most of the extraction, since the heat exchanger quickly affects boiler pressure. One doesn't really notice this consciously. The resulting impression, at least for me, is that the Semiautomatica seems alive and working just as hard as I am to make the shot good. This gives the Semiautomatica the same endearing feel of liveliness and responsiveness one gets from all well made tools, but rarely from espresso machines. I find that this more than compensates for the inconveniences implicit in its caseless design.

For those for whom convenience is a must and who have the experience, the Elektra would be relatively easy to plumb in with a drip tray drain and under-counter rotary pump (again, see the Appendices for more information).

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