Elektra Semiautomatica
Steaming Performance


When it comes to steaming, the Semiautomatica is very Italian—it's brilliant for cappuccinos, and it goes on strike halfway through a latte.

If you need to steam three to six ounces of milk for one or two cappuccinos, you can start the shot, steam the milk, wipe the wand, end the shot, and pour. The timing is perfect. If you want to steam eight ounces or more, the boiler pressure will drop because the 800 Watt heater can only maintain the boiler at 0.45 bar at steady state steaming. Consequently, steaming rate slows to a crawl, no faster than a Rancilio Silvia, or an E61 with a low volume tip. Thus the Semiautomatica's comparative performance is fairly poor:

8 ounces

10 ounces

12 ounces

Elektra Semiautomatica

47

61

72

Rancilio Silvia*

45

60

70

Quickmill Andreja*

30

40

50

Elektra A3*

15

25

35

Obviously, since one can froth and pull shots simultaneously, any HX machine or dual boiler will be better for milk drinks than a single boiler home machine. However, in this price class, one should look for a machine that suits ones needs perfectly. And for this, bigger and faster is not always better. The stock tips of larger capacity machines should not be used to steam very small portions of milk. Even if you are skilled enough to get microfoam in the five to ten second frothing period, the sweetness you want in frothed milk requires a longer stretching time. Milk frothed this quickly tastes dry and flat.

The perfect time for stretching milk is about 15 to 25 seconds—this gets it fully sweetened and completes the job while the extraction is just finishing. The Semiautomatica has perfect timing for one or two cappuccinos. Many people who buy faster steaming machines use low volume steam tips for drinks this size, and also get perfect steaming times. Large commercial machines are designed for perfect timing on lattes or four to eight cappuccinos at a time. When shopping in this price range, you shouldn't compromise: pick the machine and steam tip whose power fits your drink making needs perfectly.

Banging 'em out at parties

This is a new section, but I think one that's necessary for HB reviews. Multi-group commercial machines are designed to cope with long lines of customers, whereas the single group HX and dual boiler machines reviewed here are mostly designed to make one or two drinks at a moment's notice in a home or low volume commercial setting. Basically, if you are using a single group machine at parties, the best strategy is to manage it so you make one or two drinks at a time, with at least five minutes between sessions. All semi-commercial machines can cope gracefully with such a routine.

The differences between single group machines become dramatic when making a lot of drinks in a row. With practice and the right tools (multiple portafilters, a dosing grinder, multiple milk pitchers), you'd be able to make milk drinks at a rate of about 75 seconds per drink. How well can machines keep up with this pace? The Elektra can keep up easily for shots and small cappuccinos, since both the boiler and HX recover within 20 seconds of ending a shot or 30 seconds after a long steaming session. Unless you are very fast indeed, the machine will be ready for the next shot before you are. For larger milk drinks, you'll be delayed finishing steaming and won't maintain the 75 second pace, but the machine will still recover faster than you. Smaller E61 machines usually need a little more time (around 45 seconds) for the HX and thermosyphon to recover after any shot; if you are quick, you'll have to wait on the machine. However, since one can steam larger drinks, they'll outpace the Elektra for lattes. Machines with large boilers and high capacity heat exchangers will steam lattes as fast as the shot pulls, and have recovered by the time you are ready for the next round.

Steaming Quality

The Semiautomatica has a steam wand design seemingly straight off the original 1905 Pavoni and totally outdated: it doesn't move in any direction, and the tip can't easily be screwed off. But after you've steamed with it once, the only question you'll have is why anyone would have wanted to mess with the design. Put the wand in the milk, turn it on, and there's no water dribble, no explosion of splashed milk, no painful booming noises, just an instant, perfect whirlpool of milk turning into microfoam. Hold the wand near the surface, and it stretches hugely to create the classic soft cap. Keep the wand deeper and you get the latte art style liquid foam. With a little practice, you'll be able to catch the tip depth that does the perfect World Barista Championship pour—a latte art pattern that puffs into the soft cap. In all cases, the froth has the shiny appearance and sweet taste of perfection. For one or two cappuccinos at a time, it's the easiest and best frothing espresso machine I've used.

The reasons behind this are straightforward. The small three hole tip develops the optimal pressure and dispersion for stretching this portion of milk at the right pace, while the angle of the fixed wand is optimal for creating the whirlpool that stops large bubbles from forming. Finally, the steam valve is adjacent to the boiler, so there is no long steam pipe in which condensate forms, and you won't get the initial squirt of water when opening the valve.

The steam valve itself is basically an on/off device—a brisk quarter turn taking it from shut to full open. I used to think this was a bad design and that a valve that could be precisely throttled was better. But it turns out that steam tips are designed for the fully open valve, so I never steam with a partially open one anyway. The knob is narrow, vertical, and slides off easily. If you are used to large horizontal knobs, you may end up, like me, staring non-plussed at the knob in your hand while the milk cooks. It's not a problem, push it back on and turn the steam off. You'll get used to it after a few days, and then find it quite comfortable. However, this is one of the design details where looks slightly trumped ergonomics.

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