Bella Barista are now an Official distributor in the UK for Lelit and now stock two very small footprint Heat Exchanger (HX) machines from Lelit, the  PL62S on the left and PL62 on the right.  Small footprint prosumer machines are proving increasingly popular at the moment. These cut down cousins of the larger prosumer machines feature a full sized professional E61 group, good sized 1.5 litre boiler and surprisingly, a 2.5 litre cold water tank, all in a much smaller body than usual.

HX machines are popular because of their ability to steam milk and brew coffee at the same time.

logo_bella

These Italian built machines and use mainly industry standard components. A traditional construction  ensures they can be repaired and maintained for decades to come, unlike normal kitchen appliances these machines last a very long time.

It’s tiny at 22cm wide x 40 cm deep and 35.5 cm high. This will fit into the smallest kitchen and not dominate a larger one,  allowing plenty of room for the associated equipment required such as a grinder and a knock box. Even though it’s very small it’s still very heavy weighing in at a hefty 19kg or nearly 42 lbs in old money!

This photo shows it under normal height kitchen cupboards and it’s positively swallowed up in the corner. It really is small and should fit any sized kitchen

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Bella Barista stocks 2 variants of this particular heat exchanger machine. The PL62S and the PL62. The latter is usually much more expensive, Bella Barista used their buying power in the market to make the more expensive PL62 available at an excellent price. The main differences are shown below as the internals and performance of each machine is identical. From a personal perspective the upgrade is worth it for the knobs alone.

Lelit PL62S Lelit PL62
Two tone case satin sides and back polished front, drip tray well finished Full polished case and drip tray better finished
1 portafilter holder, plastic tamper 2 Portafilter holders & stainless steel tamper
Cheaper and not great looking steam, hot water and brew lever knobs in slightly textured finish plastic Great looking steam, hot water and brew lever knobs in smooth shiny phenolic finish plastic, very similar to the old traditional Bakelite knobs

The machine I was provided was the cheaper PL62S, but they are identical internally, so for me the first thing to look inside. I am afraid this is a 17 minute video, but I urge you to watch it as it covers all the internals and contains a lot of the reasons why I think this is a good machine. It will also have information not mentioned in the text of the review.


Hopefully you found the video interesting and it demonstrates many of the things I like about the machine.

I especially like the attention to small details that many manufacturers overlook!

It shows a good understanding of espresso machine design and also that the manufacturer cares about producing a good machine.

  • The extra solenoid valve was actually just to reset the brew pressure to 0 on the pressure gauge. First manufacturer I have ever seen bother to do this, the others simply leave it to gradually come down or sit at 6 bar for a few hours.
  • The extra sheathing of the wiring and it’s quite neat
  • 2 limit stats
  • Electronic temperature control rather than the mechanical pressurestat
  • Bothering to put a dual pressure gauge on the machine
  • Ensuring there is an access port below the boilers, so boiler removal is not necessary to change a heating element (you should use an anti torque strap of course)
  • Routing any venting of the safety pressure valve to the internal tank. When many manufacturers are happy for them to blow their guts inside the machine saturating it with steam and boiling water, or into the drip tray where it can either burn you or shower you with brown waste water.
  • Although a pain to remove, plenty of case screws to ensure the case is very secure)
  • Using a vibration pump de-aerator, this helps with priming (many manufacturers don’t bother).
  • Using a rather nice low water system with an audible alarm, even the tank is shaped to help facilitate the next point.
  • Taking the trouble to ensure the pump continues to run when the low water alarm goes off,  ensuring that last espresso shot is not spoiled. BUT taking the trouble to ensure the pump cannot be destroyed by the autofill of the steam boiler calling for water as it’s programmed to shut this function off.
  • Placement of the pump in a very accessible place for easy maintenance
  • The use of a good quality DUAL pole latching power switch on the front of the machine that allows the use of smart plugs and time switches.
  • An excellent quality expansion valve that can be adjusted to 9 bar with no problems and the machine actually adjusted properly from the factory
  • Good quality large copper boiler

All of these things you never really see as a customer/owner, in fact you probably would never be aware of them. As a reviewer and tester, when I open these machines up, this is the stuff that it’s really good to see. It means they know what they’re doing and they care about doing it well.

The features visible to you the customer.

I have identified premium features that come as standard on both machines because you don’t normally find them on machines in this price range:

  • Dual finish case, polished and satin on the PL62S, all polished on the PL62, both look really good
  • No compression steam and water valves (premium feature)
  • No burn steam and water wands (premium feature)
  • Dual pressure gauge showing steam and brew pressure (premium feature)
  • All metal drip tray of decent size
  • E61 group high enough to allow a mug with double portafilter installed
  • Electronic temperature control rather than the mechanical pressurestat (premium feature)
  • Cup warmer tray and separate hatch for filling water tank
  • Audible low water alarm
  • Ball joint steam (nice and long) and hot water wands

Overall this is a really nice small footprint machine and there are quality features at a value for money price.


What’s supplied with the machine

The cheaper PL62S comes supplied with:

  • 1 portafilter handle
  • single and double basket insert
  • userguide
  • Mine had a European mains lead as well as a UK one (I don’t know if the UK models will come with both)
  • Coffee scoop
  • plastic tamper
  • Steel blind filter for back-flushing (not shown)
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The more expensive PL62 has additionally:

  • 2 portafilter handles
  • stainless steel tamper instead of a plastic tamper

Performance

Brew Temperature

Many heat exchanger machines can run far too hot, or use large amounts of water to flush them down to a good temperature for brewing. I tested this on the Lelit for two scenarios. One where the machine has been on for about 1 hour and another where it had been on all day. I use a device I made back in 2006 for testing brew temperatures, it’s quite similar to a Scace 2, but mine has a full simulated coffee bed with the probe about 3mm below the surface.

Cooling flushes are not large and are in line with well set up machines of this class. Very large cooling flushes are a sign than an HX machine is not well designed and should be avoided.

This is not an exact science and you should always flush until the water stops boiling from the group head. At this point an espresso shot will be at around 96C. The reason that you have to flush for longer if the machine has been on for many hours is because the water in the cold water tank warms up and of course takes less energy to heat…or conversely provides less cooling when flushing. This water  heating in the cold tank is very common on all small footprint machines (and many larger ones), simply because the tank is closer to the boiler and the case is smaller. The performance of the Lelit Mara was good in this regard and required either the same or less flushing than other well set up HX machines. Of course you should use the flushing water to warm any cups, don’t waste it. The Bella Barista supplied extra user-guide provides much more guidance as the the flushing volume/times required for various scenarios that have been temperature tested.

A good rule of thumb for HX machines is to flush until it stops bubbling off the group head and steadies….then give it 3 to 5 seconds more.

Steaming

This is often an area of compromise on HX machines, many set up a higher steam boiler pressure which equates to a higher temperature of 1.3 to 1.4 bar  for steaming at the expense of much larger flushes to get the brew temperature right. The Lelit Mara is set to a steam boiler pressure (temperature) of 1.1 bar. This makes for smaller cooling flushes. However, the vertical steam boiler actually holds more superheated water than a horizontal boiler so it still steams well at these lower pressures. The heating element is powerful and cuts in quickly to ensure pressure is maintained at a good level.

Now although it’s not for steaming huge volumes of milk, that doesn’t mean it can’t do lots of milk steaming, it’s just slower. It can pretty much steam for as long as you want, or until the steam boiler auto-fill cuts in, but this only causes a small pause in steaming. You can steam at least 400ml of milk, to the correct temperature without the auto-fill cutting in. This is more than enough for a couple of large lattes.

Below is a very short milk steaming video with the machine fully warmed up and steaming about 250ml of real milk from the fridge at 4C. Note how the steam pressure stabilises at just under 1 bar, which is excellent and it’s steaming performance is pretty good.


Power on testing

Although not strictly under the performance banner, there are lots of other things I look at when the machine is on and I often keep a video for my own personal log and to remind me when writing things up. I thought you might find it interesting as I often externalise my thought about the machine when shooting the video. it’s 10 minutes of your time, but I think you might find it interesting.

Espresso production

I suppose we come the marketing fluff, how good it tastes and how well it makes espresso. Well surprise surprise, it’s as good as any other well set up E61 group HX machine in this regard,  whether that machine is £900 or £1300.  In the same way, it’s far better than any machine that’s not well set up. It’s important to point out, how well an E61 HX machine is set up is down to the manufacturer, if it’s not right, there isn’t much you can do about it. I recently tested a machine where the brew temperature simply could not be brought down to good levels to make espresso and cooling flushes were massive (e.g. 300 ml or more).

One thing I noticed was how well the E61 pre-infusion system works with the Lelit. It’s not the best looking shot I’ve ever done, but it clearly shows the pre-infusion steps, just watch the brew pressure needle (bottom one) very carefully. Pre-infusion allows the coffee puck to be more gently infused with hot brew water before the high pressure phase starts. This improves shot quality and makes for more reliable shot performance.

 A typical  E61 group with lever action and pre-infusion is shown below.

e61

The E61 with pre-infusion is easily recognisable by it’s shape and the fact it is operated by a lever. It weighs around 8 lbs or 3.6 kg and it’s this weight that significantly contributes to brew temperature stability. Being all mechanical, there is little to go wrong and it can be fully internally refurbished (after 10 or 15 years) at minimal cost. It remains one of the most practical, durable, best performing and reliable groups for the home user, working extremely well on HX or Dual boiler machines. It’s beauty to the engineer and consumer alike comes from pure elegance of design, mechanical simplicity and excellent performance.


Reliability & Maintenance

I have only used this machine for around 10 days, which is shorter than my usual testing cycle of 3 weeks. However, it has been on every day for 16 hours per day and also overnight on a couple of occasions. There have been no problems and the machine has worked perfectly.

The use of industry standard tried and tested components means nothing unusual to go wrong. The elimination of the pressurestat removes a common area of faults for espresso machine as they age. It also means the machine is less likely to see an over temperature situation.

I think the video shows access to internal components is excellent and where they need to be, they are all well secured within the case. Quick fit John Guest type connections make removing and replacing pipework easy. It’s not going to be a difficult machine to maintain.

The one thing that kills machines faster than anything else is bad water (lime scale). I realise it has an internal water filter, but in reality they are about as useful as snowshoes in the desert. They don’t soften for very long and in the tank for more than a few weeks they tend to go mouldy inside (so don’t bother trying to recharge them)! You are far better off using boiler safe water if you live in a hard water area.  This can be certain bottled waters (NOT mineral waters), you can get plenty of advice on the forums, Volvic is one name that springs to mind. It’s important to get the calculation correct for estimating whether the mineral water is soft or not. It is only 2 minerals that cause hardness.

  • MgCO3 (Magnesium Carbonate)
  • CaCO3 (Calcium Carbonate)

Soft water is usually below 60 mg/L (milligrams per litre) of the combined total of these compounds. Moderately hard is 60-120 and hard is 120-180.

The problem is that these waters normally only state the amount of Mg and Ca, not the whole compound which is misleading. Volvic has 11.5 mg/L calcium and about 8mg/L magnesium., so you would think it’s super soft…BUT you have to multiply the calcium number by 2.5 and the magnesium number by 4 to get the real amount (it’s just chemistry). This works out for be 28.75 + 32 = 60.75 mg/L which just classifies as soft and won’t scale the machine badly at all.

Hilghland Spring Water on the other hand has about 40mg Calcium and 10mg Magnesium, multiplying these figures by the right amounts gives 140 mg/l…which is quite hard!

So whatever you do, be very careful to get it right or seek advice about the many cartridge systems available to give boiler safe water. I use reverse osmosis with bicarbonate re-mineralisation.


Normally I don’t use manufacturers marketing fluff

However, I should link to the Lelit website where you can read about the specifications and spin a few 360 degree images of the 2 machines

Lelit Mara PL62S

Lelit Mara PL62

There is another HX model with a PID, the PL62T, but really don’t bother, there is no real advantage having a PID on an HX machine.

You normally need to spend need to spend approximately £1200 for an entry level prosumer machine so the Lelit Mara represents astounding value at the current pricing (November 2017). Of course you need a grinder so that £250-300 saved means you can get a decent small grinder and believe me this machine not only deserves it, it really needs it. very cheap grinders won’t get the best from it. Fortunately many small and neat grinders exist allowing a very small footprint for your coffee preparation area.

You also may have seen the small red Grindenstien knock-box in the videos. The little counter top knock-boxes like this are ideal. They use minimal counter space and their small size is a big advantage. You can knock out around 6 or so coffee pucks in it before it needs emptying, great because unlike the larger draws, they don’t go mouldy. Also who wan’t a grinder sitting on a steel knock box full of damp pucks!

Just remember when you buy this class of machine (Prosumer HX)

  • You have to put some effort into learning how to use it and actually making the coffee, it also has the potential to be variable so technique is important
  • You have to allow extra space with it’s requirement for grinder, tamper, knock-box, shot glass etc..
  • You are more likely to be the only one using it, unless you can teach other family members

A poor operator can easily produce a bad drink machine and many do as I have found by bitter experience. Go round a coffee geeks house for a coffee, they might well have esoteric equipment and grinders costing many thousands. Sometimes they waste 50g dialling in the grinder for a new bean (because when you change beans you must change grind). Espresso shots that to them aren’t perfect, go down the sink. Eventually you are left thinking, “just give me a coffee, I don’t care if it’s not perfect…I’m loosing the will to live here”.  That’s the time when basic technique and a simple machines Like the Lelit come into their own.

In terms of longevity, a prosumer machine can last for 15 years or more with good maintenance, as long as you are willing to spend the money on it. If your basically lazy, or perhaps don’t want to invest time and money with prosumer kit, you won’t get the best from the Lelit. Prosumer stuff needs to be kept meticulously clean, otherwise drinks start to taste bad, most people don’t clean their machines anywhere near enough. This affects taste and is so easy to do with E61 type machines, it makes me wonder why people don’t clean the group, shower screen and portafilter more often.


Should I buy one and why this one?

I want to be sure you make the right decision for you, based on information that’s going to be important, not marketing fluff. I’m experienced and have helped design espresso machines and roasters, so I know my way around a decent coffee machine. Still, it’s never an easy question. If you want to step up in terms of your coffee making and are coming from a cheaper single boiler non HX machine. If you have the time and patience to put a little effort into coffee making and are willing to invest in a decent grinder, then yes consider the Lelit.

Certainly the Lelit is better than most HX machines I have seen and I think is unbeaten in it’s price range. It’s nearest competitor is the Rocket Appartmento and the PL62S certainly has some premium features the Apartmento doesn’t have, this is even more true of the PL62. In addition to being smaller, they have more powerful heating elements. Both machines represent good saving vs the Rocket and will perform equally well.

Of course Bella Barista sells both brands, but I think the smart money should go on the mid range PL62, then use the money saved toward the grinder. I suppose I will get in trouble for this, but I have to give my view of where the best value for money is. After that it’s really down to looks…that’s personal and I can’t help you there.

P.S. If you buy a Lelit Mara, the very first thing you should do is carefully remove that “caution hot”  sticker on top of the group.

Note: Bella Barista offer a warranty of 2 years for this machine and it is fully transferable to a new owner should you decide to upgrade further and sell it within that time. Also they are able to fully support the machine at a technical level with support, advice, repairs and parts. Their custom user guide for this machine gives useful extra information and tips.