A wonderful coffee maker that makes a fine cup of coffee, and looks good doing it. Just like your Great Grandparents used to own.
Positive Product Points
Price-The only thing that beats a dollar is free It's a Vac Pot! Its twice as old as I am Makes a very good pot of coffee; With a good burr grinder it makes a great pot of coffee You can use the bottom chamber alone for tea if you feel so inclined. Sometimes I do just that. Feel so inclined, that is.
Negative Product Points
It's a Vac Pot! Relative PITA to clean after use Don't bother if you don't have a decent burr grinder
I found this wandering through an antique store on Lancaster Ave in Philadelphia one Sunday with my girlfriend. The owner didn't have the cord for it (and I wasn't about to tell her that I had 3 Farberware perc pots from the 60's and 5 other sunbeams from the 30's-40's) and figured that I'd have a time finding one so she sold it to me for a dollar.
The Vac Pot) The C20-A was one of the first (If I'm not mistaken) widely produced vac pots by Sunbeam, and came out in the late 30s-between 38 and 39. (8/5/06-I discovered that the c-20a was first introduced in October of 1938; You could purchase one for the tidy sum of $15.00) I think the C30s were supposed to be a nicer version of the 20s and were released about the same time. You could get a C30 with a glass upper pot, but those are naturally rather scarce these days. You can tell it's from this pre WWII period just by looking at the details; lots of neat touches like round feet with chrome bright work, and a cool Art Deco etched design on the sides of the bottom pot. This coffee maker wouldn't look out of place in Hercule Poirot's office. Fit and finish is superb, and this one was in very good shape, with only one small ding in the bottom pot. With a 65 year old appliance it's all about the journey, and this one's was smoother than most. As with all things built before shareholders and bean counters put profits before quality and durability this thing is built to last. (I've had 3 Santos Electric vac pots go back to Bodum for leaks in the time I have had this one. That's all I'll say about that) It has a 1000 watt element, and high/low kick down switch for brewing/and then keeping the brewed coffee hot-but I would get the coffee out of the pot as soon as possible to avoid burning it. The filter mechanism consists of a long arm that connects the top pot to the bottom pot and actually screws into the heating element . At the top of the arm there is a hook that is caught by the top when put it on. This allows you to attach and separate the top chamber to the bottom chamber without a) burning yourself on the hot arm and b) accidentally unscrewing the arm too far and lifting it up, causing all of those grounds to go down the pipe to the bottom pot. Midway down the arm is the filter holder, which consists of a fixed upper metal ring with 4 flat spokes that connect to the arm, and lower ring that's almost identical to the top one except that it screws on and off so you can put the filter between the two. Oh yeah, about that filter; These pots came with a reusable cloth filter that was never meant to last 60+ years so you'll surely find it absent on yours. It took me a while to find a suitable replacement but the solution I used worked wonders and incidentally is what Sunbeam moved to in later models; a metal mesh filter. I used a replacement metal screen for an 8-cup Bodum French Press pot. Simply cut out the center ring to fit the filter basket and don't look back.
Brewing Coffee.) Don't even bother with an electric vac pot unless you have a decent burr grinder. The way you vary your brew time with a vac pot is the coarseness/fineness of the grind, and you can't do that with a blade grinder. I use a Krups GVX-2 burr grinder for all of my non-espresso coffee (An Innova step less burr grinder handles those duties) $60-$70 at any kitchen store. You'll probably be some where in between a drip grind and a perc grind. These pots brew towards the top of the acceptable 194*-204*F range. I've measured this one at 202*F, and my other Sunbeams range from 199*-205*, so your mileage may vary. The earlier models tend to brew hotter. Don't be afraid to play with the grind. Anyway take your 2-5 cups of cold, filtered water and put it in the bottom pot. Get that filter set up and after you place the top pot on the bottom screw the filter arm in, put your coffee in, set the switch to "hi" and plug it in. In about 5 or so minutes you'll have a very nice cup of coffee. Basically, it gives you nearly all the flavor of a French Press with little to no temp drop. (Of course, its the temp drop during brew time that brings out all of those complex flavors in a press pot, but that's a story for another day) By the time you pour it out you'll be at around the mid to upper 190's which is a heck of a lot better than Press, especially if you're gonna put some in a thermos. It makes a better cup than any of my other electric vacs, but doesn't quite compare to my stovetop Hario or my Yama. If you grind too fine you'll end up with indigestion. Too coarse and you went through a lot of trouble to have a weak cup of coffee. In the middle, you'll find a cup of coffee that tastes like its from a French Press, but with slightly more muted flavors. Very Smooth. It's a stone PITA to clean, and I'd never use it when time is of the essence, but the reward is worth the effort-at least to me.
What to look for when you buy one) I would probably buy this in person. While ebay can be convenient you're at the mercy of the seller. Make sure that all of the parts are there. The only exception to this is the filter proper, which I'd probably be loathe to use if it were still there, after all of these years. Make sure the gasket on the top chamber is in good shape. You can't get a replacement and it probably wouldn't work well if you could. If it doesn't have a cord still buy it if the price is right. You can use the cord off of any Farberware Perc Pot made to this day. Price is wide open; I've paid from a dollar to $50, But seeing how much I paid for my Santos ($89), and how much trouble I've had I would pay that much for something that makes a better cup of coffee and looks better doing it IMHO. I've been lucky with the A series of the C20s. A lot of people complain about the high brew temp vs. later models, but two of my C30s brew hotter, my one C40 makes any coffee taste like it was brewed 3 times, and none of them make as good a cup of coffee as this C20-a, so as they say "roll the dice". Don't forget that burr grinder.
Antiques store in Philadelphia. Not too much to say about that. You'll trip over 20-a's and b's in these kind of places, and three of the ones I've purchased I've gotten at yardsales in the 10 dollar range. So keep your eyes open when you're driving through those older suburbs during yard-sale season.
Three Month Followup
Well, it's still going strong. I use it every day. People are amazed when they find out that the cup of coffee that they just had was made in a 66 year old coffee maker.
One Year Followup
You know, its nuts how much better most products were made before beancounters and shareholders ruled the world. After 3 (!) Bodum Electric Santos rolling over and dying within 18 months, it is more than a bit surreal to have electric coffee pots that make great coffee while collecting social security (while it lasts, at leat). My oldest is over 67 years old! They still make a brilliant cup of coffee.