Looks | The LeLit PL041 pump driven espresso machine is one of those shiny nuggets that sits on the kitchen counter yelling: "Look at me, look at me!". Now, if you are a shiny appliance person then this is the machine for you. The LeLit gleams from every angle, front and back. Compared to the benchmark machine in our lab, the Silvia, the LeLit is about 3/4 the size and a few pounds lighter. This is a good thing when the kitchen counter space is dear and carefully doled out. Fact: LeLit is known in industry as the manufacturer of quality steam iron systems!
First impressions | The LeLit came to me double boxed and well packed for a transcontinental trip. This is, after all, everyones deep fear of ordering a machine online and having it travel several thousand miles. I have received 6 machines from across the continent and more than 2 from Europe, each coming without a scratch, dent or ding. Now I cannot guarantee you will have this experience but I cannot imagine why you wouldn't have a happy shipping experience. Mileage will vary it seems.
Controls | The LeLit has a standard switch layout on the front panel, with a slight twist. It has a power switch, with built in LED, a brew switch, a steam switch and a hot-water switch. The hot water switch can be a bit confusing because you have to open the steam knob valve to get hot water out of the steam wand. Read the manual. :-) There is a ready light above the steam knob that indicates brew or steam readiness.
Features | Considering the price, $399, the LeLit is the cheapest espresso maker on the market that has all the extras. And what are they you ask? The Lelit has a brass boiler, a 3-way solenoid for quick multiple brews, a forged brass portafilter, a standard issue Ulka pump (the likes of which you will find in every espresso machine made these days), a 2 quart plastic reservoir that is very visible from most angles and a skin of steel. The Lelit has a 1000 Watt heater built into the boiler for a quick heat up. Standard heat settings on the Lelit are 95C for brewing and 135C for steam. Our average brew temperature was about 194 degrees (F), which is where all machines should be. In fact, any temperature between 195 and 204 degrees is acceptable.
First use | With 1000 Watts of power under the hood, the LeLit is ready for action in under 3 minutes. As always, (and I harp on this endlessly) the Lelit, or any espresso machine for that matter, should be "seasoned" or heated up for a minimum of 20 minutes. Why? Espresso coffee should not come in contact with anything that is not hot. Brewing temperature is critical with espresso. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. If someone tells you that brew temperature of coffee or espresso is not one of the most critical aspects of coffee preparation, they are lying. Pretend that espresso coffee, prior to brewing (apologies to vegetarians and vegans) is raw chicken. In order NOT to poison yourself, you prepare it right at the right temperature. Coffee and espresso is like this. There is a right temperature and a wrong temperature. In all fairness, improperly prepared coffee will not kill you. It will, however, not taste right. And hey, what better motivator than the false threat of sickness to keep you brewing great coffee! As usual, the LeLit produced subsequent shots that were hot, tasty and properly extracted. A Brass boiler in any machine translates to temperature stability during brewing. Brew water temperature was stable during the duration of espresso brewing.
Facts | The LeLit has a 3-way solenoid. What is this, you ask? When you hit the brew switch, the pump pushes water into the boiler pushing out hot water into the brew head, through the shower head into the portafilter exposing the ground coffee to high pressure hot water. While brewing is taking place, there is as many as 12 Bar (atmospheres) of water pressure inside the brew group and portafilter. If you were to pull the portafilter off while brewing, (DO NOT DO THIS!) you would spray very hot water and ground coffee in every direction. Imagine scalding hot water flying at you! Anyhow, when you switch the brew cycle off, there is all this pressure with no where to go. With a 3-way solenoid, the excess pressure is diverted from the boiler, via a tube, into the drip tray. If you were using a machine without a 3-way solenoid, you would have to wait about 30 seconds to a minute while the pressure dissipated naturally.
Results | For the record, this particular LeLit arrived with a thermostat that was slightly out of spec. There are typically three thermostats in every espresso machine. One thermostat regulates brew temperature - it holds the brew temperature on or about 195 degrees Fahrenheit. One thermostat (the steam thermostat) allows the boiler temperature to rise to 235 to 245 degrees for producing steam from the boiler for foaming milk. The third thermostat is a fail safe in the event that one or both of the other two thermostats fail. It kicks in at anywhere from 260 degrees and up. The overheat thermostat (It is called a variety of things) keeps the boiler from reaching super-critical temperature, you know, the point at which the boiler is set to explode. Trust me folks - this is not a pretty sight. I digress. When I got a replacement thermostat, I put it in (took about 5 minutes) and I was off to the races. Something else to think about here - all machines use thermostats that come from the same thermostat factory. Ok, that is a simplification. In Espresso-World , a thermostat is a thermostat is a thermostat. Whether or not they are the weak link in the system is a discussion for another day. Suffice to say, when everything was up and running and heated sufficiently, I brewed fine shots. They were not as intense as the shots from the Silvia (using the same coffee, tamp and grind) but this is, after all, a machine that is over 100 dollars cheaper than the competition. The LeLit is no slouch in the steam department. After a three minute steam warm up, the leLit sounded like a Fanjet Falcon business jet winding up its turbines. My ears are still ringing.
Opinions | When someone sets out to produce a quality espresso machine for $399 dollars (with ALL the features) something has got to give. In the case of the LeLit, it is hard to spot where the weak spots are. I dug deep. What I did find was that the machine is held together with a lot of pop rivets and very few screws. No worries there really. I imagine that (as I was tearing the machine apart) the unit uses corrosion resistant sheet steel for its skin. Internally, the LeLit has all the same components, wiring, conduit, terminal blocks, and electrics that one would find in almost any other quality machine. The Espresso coffee from the LeLit is generally well above average. This represents good value.
Compare | The good news is that the LeLit has cornered the market on rock bottom pricing for quality brewing! Price wise it compares very favorably to entry level Gaggia and Saeco machines with a twist. It has a few extra features. I look forward to seeing how these machines hold up to long term use.
Buy | The LeLit PL041 is available from 1st-Line Coffee in America. Price: $499. 1st-Line offers a special for Canadians - 1st-Line will provide standard 7 day shipping for the Le'Lit PL041 within continental Canada. Duty and brokerage fees extra.