The Elektra Micro Casa a Leva home espresso blog

The Elektra Micro Casa a leva is a beautiful home espresso machine. But is it capable of making great coffee? Follow my pursuit of ultimate espresso coffee as I learn to use this exciting machine.

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Location: Trondheim, Norway

Tuesday, June 28

Finding inspiration in top quality espresso bars

I just spent a few days in Oslo where I visited several of the best coffee bars (there´s a pattern here: When I visit other cities, I always end up looking for great coffee and DVDs!). I had three or four shots of espresso at the Stockfleth´s coffee bars (there are four of them in Oslo). A couple of these shots were just great. The richness of taste and the mouthfeel was just amazing. These shots were prepared on perfectly tuned la Marzocco machines, and the guy in charge of the roasting, the barista training, the machine settings and the daily quality is Tim Wendelboe, the 2004 World Barista Champion. At its best, this espresso is a 10 out of 10. We´re so lucky to have places like this in Norway.

It is inspiring to taste coffee that is a notch better than what we may ever be able to make at home. It is amazing what a professional and dedicated barista can do on a la Marzocco machine after months of experience with the same blend.

But we can brew truly great shots at home, and we can change the blend when we want to, unlike what our favourite café can do. Trying a new blend is lots of anticipation and fun ☺ Today I bought a half kilo of the ”Crescendo” blend from Mocca. It was roasted yesterday, so I´ll wait at least one more day before testing it on the Elektra.

Sunday, June 19

How the lever machine was invented

A couple of days ago I received a postal parcel containing two books by Kenneth Davids (ordered from Amazon.com). Kenneth Davids has written several books about coffee. I already had his book about home coffee roasting, which I would say is excellent reading. Now I also have ”Espresso –ultimate coffee” and ”Coffee –A guide to buying, brewing and enjoying”. I think his books are inspiring ☺

The historical parts of ”Espresso –ultimate coffee” are informative reading. I will retell what he says about the development of espresso machines. Kenneth Davids starts by giving the background for the events leading to the invention of espresso as a brewing method.

Coffee came to Europe in commercial quantities through the port of Venezia (Venedig) in the seventeenth century. The first European coffeehouses started in Venezia, and they most certainly served strong, heavy-bodied coffee, prepared Turkish-style in an ibrik. So this taste for strong coffee, made from finely ground, dark-roasted beans, came as a result of influence from arabic coffee culture. Later, in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, influence from Austria also became evident. The Austrians had developed a taste for filtered coffee, often served with milk.

My own ibrik

So it is filtered coffee, combined with a taste for strong, darkly roasted coffee, brewed by the cup, on demand, that is the very idea behind the development of espresso. The rest of the story is about improving technology.

The filter pot that existed was a slow brewing method, especially if the coffee was ground too fine. Using only gravity to pull water through the ground coffee wasn´t satisfactory, especially in a commercial environment.

Many inventions throughout the nineteenth century focused either on vacuum or steam pressure to force water through coffee. The well-known mocca pot, among others, was invented. The first commercial machine, made in 1855 for the Paris Exposition by E.L. de Santais, used steam pressure to raise water to a considerable height. The weight of the water applied the brewing pressure. This machine could prepare coffee at high speed.

Luigi Bezzera, from Milan, should be credited for coming up with the idea (in 1901) of machines having “brewing groups”, where coffee was brewed directly into the cup. This machine configuration stays the same today.

The need for improving speed of preparation by applying force seems to have been just as much of a driving force behind espresso technology, as the idea that pressurizing coffee might extract more flavor compounds (that is a surprise to me).

But none of the earlier method of applying pressure could break the 1 ½ atmosphere ceiling. Some of the inventions (1920s and 1930s) that could break this barrier used the pressure of tap water, which was heated with electric elements before reaching each brewing group. In 1938, Francesco Illy, built a large machine, “Iletta”, that used compressed air to raise the pressure.

But the great breakthrough of technology came when Signor Cremonesi before World War II patented a piston, which, when a horizontal lever was turned, was forced downwards in a screwing motion. Another Milanese, Achille Gaggia, was experimenting with similar technology at the same time. The war made experiments stop, but in 1947, Gaggia came up with the “lever group”, where a powerful spring was compressed by pulling a long lever. When the spring expanded, a piston forced hot water through the coffee at a high pressure. In 1948, the first machines were produced. Espresso in its modern form, rich in taste and topped with a layer of insoluble substances, became the new standard.

All espresso machines since then, and the introduction of pumps and better temperature control, are really only refinements of Achille Gaggia´s patent of 1947 (as most people know, Gaggia is a well known italian brand, and their newest lever machine, is actually named "achille"). Because this blog is about a lever machine I will end this fascinating story here…

Monday, June 13

A short summary after three months with the Elektra

My first machine, purchased in 2001, was a Rancilio Silvia with a dual purpose boiler. The Silvia is a very good machine, and it was the Silvia that really triggered my interest in espresso coffee. I never reached the full potential of that machine before curiosity made me buy a heat exchanger (HX) machine, a la Valentina arte di Vittoria. I still own my la Valentina, and I won´t sell it.

Originally uploaded by audunso.

But I bought an Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, again out of curiosity. So, am I happy with the lever machine after three months? A little summary of things that I find important:

Taste (Remember that little of this would hold true if I didn´t have a proper grinder!)

-The taste profile of the shots took me some time to truly appreciate. The taste is very clean, but with less flavour than I was used to. It is a little like being used to press pot coffee, and then be introduced to filter coffee. It tastes less because it is less. But it is a matter of taste and habit, and making espresso is about extracting the taste compounds that are desirable, not as many of them as possible. The result with the Elektra is a very pleasant-tasting brew.

-The Elektra generally produces less crema than with a pump driven machine. Robusta coffee gives more crema, and blends with a high robusta content taste MUCH better on the Elektra than they do on a pump machine. There are other ways that may lead to decent looking crema –to use fresh roasted coffee, just after it has finished its resting period, is an obvious one.

-If the Elektra is operated without introducing more water into the brew chamber halfways into the shot (by lowering the lever once again 5-10 seconds into the pull) it will in fact be a ristretto machine, rather than an espresso machine, because it produces 2 x 15 ml espresso coffee and not 2 x 30 ml which is the «standard» espresso volume (from 14 grams of coffee). There´s nothing wrong about that -a more concentrated shot can be really wonderful and sweet, and in my opinion it really suits the taste profile of a lever machine.

Milk

-Getting the milk perfect is easy with the Elektra. Its steamer is as good as Rancilio Silvia´s, actually better, because it is always ready to steam. The resulting milk is very sweet, sweeter than with the Valentina. Is this because it is quicker? I don´t know, but it sounds reasonable because a fast warm-up of the milk may lead to more degraded sugar chains, giving more mono- and disaccharides.

Daily use

The machine warms up really fast, 10-11 minutes, making coffee preparation quiet spontaneous. But if you want a second cappuccino a little later, well, than the machine is too warm and you should wait a couple of hours till it has cooled down. All other machines than lever machines don´t share this dilemma. If your coffee drinking habits have turned italian style, a quick espresso now and then and a cappuccino by the counter in the morning, this machine is right for you. But if drinking two or three milk drinks or americanos while reading the newspaper or watching TV is important for you, then buy a pump machine (or do like me: Own two machines :-) ).

Cleaning the Elektra seems to be fairly easy -just run some water through after use and use a cloth to get rid of grinds clinging to the gasket. Every two- or three weeks it will be necessary with detergent cleaning, a ritual that takes 15 minutes.

Operation

Needless to say, operating a lever machine is fun, much more fun than operating any machine with only buttons.

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Originally uploaded by audunso.

So far, I am glad I bought the Elektra, and I believe I would think the same if I had only one machine. Because it warms up fast, I prepare and drink more coffee than I ever did before (my espresso drinking habits have become very italian).

I have fun operating the lever. And I like what the coffee tastes like.

I look forward to move to Oslo in August, and introduce the lever machine to my friends in Oslo. I´m really curious what they will think ☺

The apartment I have bought in Oslo is just 200 metres from Cortado, the store where I bought the Elektra. I look forward to visit the store for a chat ☺

Tuesday, June 7

Coffee in Ålesund

I have just been to Ålesund with Kjellerbandet, the big band I´ve been sitting in for 7 1/2 years. Ålesund, situated on the west coast of Norway, is a very special city. The 23rd of January 1904 there was a fire which destroyed 850 of the 1080 buildings in the city. The city had to be rebuilt, and a huge amount of the money and the help come from Wilhelm II of Germany. This has made Ålesund one of the best preserved Jugend-style cities in the world. The city´s atmosphere is fantastic. The building have ornaments, towers, balconys and beautiful colors.

Such a city deserves to have nice cafés and good coffee. And it has! There are several cafés where they show a passion for espressocoffee. I may have been affected by the city´s atmosphere and the joy of being on the road with the band, but I think that these cafés are among the most likeable I know of.

Cappuccino at Lille Løvenvold

I will mention three very different cafés, all of them serving great coffee. The most discrete café in Norway :-) is probably "Lille Løvenvold", which can hardly be spotted from the street. But if you -full of doubt- walk in the door, you will find a two-floor, intimate café with nice, big chairs, low lights and a laidback mood. The baristas are very friendly and seem to take the time to talk to customers. One barista even sat down with me and started to talk about coffee. They serve a blend (Half&half) roasted at Intershop in Sandefjord (the bags are labeled "Crema"). This company roast 60 kg batches and deliver coffee to many norwegian cafés. Lille Løvenvold is a perfect little place, very much to my liking.

For someone who is very interested in espresso coffee, the most obvious place in Ålesund is "Invit". This is because they are usually well represented in the finals of the norwegian barista championship, a sign of their high standards. Their fitting up is very much like a typical coffee bar: Big windows, high chairs, light interior... But I would say they are even hipper than most coffee bars in Norway!! When I was standing in line, the barista handed me a single espresso on the house (in a square cup!), just because I was peeking at the equipment :-) A very nice thing to do -and free espresso out of nowhere IS delicious! The cappuccino I was served was also up to their standards. Conclusion: Busy place, fun baristas and great coffee!

Invit

I knew of both these places from earlier trips to Ålesund. My own milk jug is bought at Lille Løvenvold three years ago. But I went to a shopping mall, Ålesund Storsenter, and found a small shop, "Chocolatte" which sell coffee and coffee equipment + ice cream! It was a very pretty shop, and their small selection of equipment, cups and other things were exactly the things I would have chosen to sell myself! That made me order an espresso from their Faema machine. It was very well made and delicious. The barista had a reflected opinion about how to get the best out of that blend, the SH blend from Solberg&Hansen. A very positive experience, and it is fun to discover good places you didn´t know about.

Chocolatte

I will say the same as I did after writing about coffee in Bergen: There may be other places in Ålesund worth visiting because of their coffee. It is great to see that several norwegian cities have cafés that can offer the best of espresso and filter coffee, and that people with the passion to educate baristas are scattered around the country. Another thing I heard about, was that this week, Alf Kramer, one of the most respected coffee personalities in Norway is coming to Ålesund to certify baristas. I haven´t heard about such a certification before, but I´m sure it is a good thing. Maybe a certification system can lead to better wages for the educated baristas.