Coffee + Physics: The Sunbeam Coffeemaster C50

Last week I posted about the sheer simplicity of the Chemex coffeemaker, but today I’m going to show you the exact opposite end of the spectrum with a how-to and review of the glorious, fully automatic chrome beast that is the Sunbeam Coffeemaster C50.

C50

About a year ago I discovered that Krups had discontinued the filters for my Moka Brew, a coffeemaker I finally loved after two miserable experiences with mold-prone automatic drip machines. So, I began cutting paper filters for it by hand, but decided it would be good to research possible replacements. Through research on coffee aficionado forums I discovered a type of brewing called vacuum brewing that is widely regarded as a gold standard for brewed coffee. With several high-priced new vacuum brewers to choose from, I was surprised to find that some of the most recommended machines were from the 1930s through the 1960s. For a vintage-phile like me, this was the best news possible. I found this Coffeemaster C50—original manual included—on Craigslist.

Booklet

Vacuum brewing goes back hundreds of years, but electric automatic models came onto the scene just before WWII. Makers such as Cory, Proctor Silex and Sunbeam were among the most prominent. Throughout the 1950s, however, vacuum brewers lost market to faster, less expensive electric percolators. Sunbeam introduced the Coffeemaster with model C20 in 1938 and ceased vacuum brewer production with the C50, produced only in 1960. Here it would remain in obscurity until future coffee lovers rediscovered what made these machines so great in the first place: the coffee.

Diagram

Although they may look like exotic percolators, vacuum brewing is very different from percolating. Percolators flash boil water, sending it up a tube to splash over coffee grounds repeatedly. In a vacuum brewer, water heats in the lower chamber creating vapor which, blocked by the upper chamber seal, creates pressure. Eventually enough pressure builds to force the water up the siphon tube into the upper chamber where it combines with the coffee grounds. When the temperature of the lower chamber cools, the water flows back down the tube, ending the brewing process. Unlike the percolator, the water never reaches boiling and brewed coffee is never recirculated through the grounds. For these reasons, many believe that vacuum brewing is one of the best extraction methods for coffee. I had to try it for myself.

Broken-DownThe first step for me was cleaning the machine. With years of built up black coffee residue in the lower chamber and filter, I wasn’t about to drink anything that came out of it. I cleaned the lower chamber with oven cleaner about three times before it shined up to bare chrome. The stainless steel mesh filter was also almost completely black. I ended up using a toothbrush and Goo Gone to break down the oils and get down to the bare metal. After several rinsing cycles, I was ready to test the self-proclaimed “Finest Coffeemaker Made.” Here’s how it’s done:

Add Water

Add Water

First, add water to the lower chamber. On most models, lines up to 10 cups are marked on the inside of the pot.

Add Coffee

Add Coffee

Next, insert the filter rod into the siphon tube of the upper chamber. The end of the filter rod is crooked and simply goes through the siphon tube and hooks over the end. Set the upper chamber on top. Sunbeam Coffeemaster models before the C50 press on, the C50 locks on with two levers. Put the appropriate amount of coffee into the upper chamber.

Switch to Brew

Switch to Brew

Turn the switch toward “Brew.” It will immediately snap back to the center position, but the light will come on to indicate the brewing process has started. It will take a few minutes, but eventually you’ll hear a sudden gurgling noise.

Brewing

Brewing

Once maximum pressure is achieved in the bottom chamber, the water suddenly bubbles up into the top and churns around with the coffee. Perhaps the most fascinating part of watching a 50+ year-old appliance make coffee is the level of automation. Once the appropriate temperature is achieved in the lower chamber and the water leaves, the pot automatically switches itself into warming mode allowing the bottom to cool and the brewed coffee to return.

Complete

Remove upper chamber and serve

After a few minutes of gurgling about, you’ll hear the water rush back toward the bottom. The brewing is complete. The upper chamber can be removed and the coffee is ready to serve. Because I had read so many positive reviews I was anxious to try it, but admittedly skeptical that an all-metal coffeemaker from 1960 with a reusable filter was going to make a half-decent cup. But, here goes nothing. Down the hatch.

Amazing. A super smooth but rich and complex cup of coffee with no bitterness or “bright” taste. In terms of flavor, hands down it beats the Chemex, every drip coffeemaker I’ve ever used and even my Krups Moka Brew. It really is some of the best coffee I’ve ever made at home and I’d recommend one to anyone. That being said, there’s a lot to consider if you’re thinking of adding one of these to your kitchen lineup.

PROS

The obvious pro is the amazing coffee. Quality construction is another solid pro. These things are thick chrome over solid copper and built to last for generations. It’s very likely that with proper maintenance one would last the rest of your natural life. Plus, that’s all wrapped up in timelessly beautiful package. All models feature reusable filters, whether cloth or metal mesh, so there are no paper filters to continually buy or toss out either.

CONS

Vacuum brewers take longer than most modern coffeemakers to brew and that might be a consideration for daily use. The biggest con is the cleanup. It breaks down into four pieces that really should be cleaned after each use. The grounds are loose in the upper chamber and must be rinsed out. The mesh filter almost always has to be cleaned with a small brush to get the sediment off of it. The amount of time required to set it up, brew and clean it would probably be too prohibitive for making a quick travel mug of coffee on workdays. The rubber gasket on the upper chamber can be a drawback as they can dry out and must be replaced. Although the gaskets are becoming easier to find with more interest in the machines.

TIPS

If you’re using a model with a metal mesh filter, use a slightly coarser grind to prevent fine sediment from making it into the brew. Many people recommend the older models C20, C30 and their variants rather than the C5o, claiming that design differences in the C50 cause it to slightly over-brew. I haven’t done the research to see, but I thought the C50 made a great cup. If you’re looking for one, I’d recommend buying in person if possible to be able to verify the condition of the seal.

In the end, I’d recommend this for anyone who truly loves coffee and wants a device capable of producing a large amount of great coffee at one time. Once you get the hang of it, it may just become your favorite way to make coffee at home.

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28 Comments

  1. Patrick Leun
    Posted April 10, 2015 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your blog about the Sunbeam C50. I have a 2 C30’s and I love the coffee they produce. One is mint and I’ve only used a few times, the other one I use quite often. I have a page on Facebook about the Sunbeam vacuum pots. Thanks for sharing your enjoyment with this model!

    • Austin
      Posted April 10, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Patrick, glad to hear you enjoy yours. They do seem to have a pretty dedicated fan base.

  2. Dave
    Posted April 10, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to disagree with the first “con”. With these coffee makers you can start with hot watt rather than cold water. I use mine daily and it is faster than a drip ( i.e. Mr Coffee type) or my percolator. I can’t see time as a con for these.

    • Austin
      Posted April 10, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      That’s a fair point, Dave. I think time as a con will probably be relative to the user and their expectations. For me the C50 was a little slower than my drip machine or my Moka Brew, but it made better coffee so I think it’s a fair trade-off. For me the time to clean the machine properly was a bigger drawback than brew time by far. But then I’m used to a Chemex which is about the least cleanup of any coffee maker out there—rinse and go!

    • Jim Black
      Posted January 9, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Austin, who says that these machines make coffee quickly. I’ve been using them for many years, and daily for the last two years. It’s fast and I love the coffee.

      Three drawbacks do exist. The primary one is clean-up, which is a bit of a pain. It requires about one-half more grounds than my BonaVita (drip, with a cone-shaped basket). And, lastly, my metal filter has become dis-attached from the assembly and a small amount of grounds leak in.

      –Factoid

  3. Mark
    Posted May 15, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I collect/use a variety of Sunbeam CofeeMasters/percolators, and can offer the following:

    1.) The C20/C30 seems better suited for smaller quantities (2-4) cups of coffee, as it is a slightly smaller size. I tried to make 6 cups in mine once, and the coffee just wouldn’t all flow back down until removing the upper bowl.
    2.) The C50 is slightly larger, and works well for 4-6 cups. Haven’t used it for larger quantities.

    One maintenance issue: the gasket on the C20/C30 is larger (there is a metal spring inside it I believe) and when it dries out over time, makes it much harder to separate the two bowls.

    Replacements for these are at long…… last….. on the market however, which is terrific. Finding someone to do it for you is another matter. If anyone knows of someone who’ll do the work, I’d LOVE to find a source., as the one on my C30 is starting to dry out. The two handles on the C50 make it a little easier to separate.

    The lower “bowl” on my C30 seems to burn the coffee if you leave it on there for too long. The C50 seems to keep it at a lower temp in “warm” and avoids this problem.

    If you’re a fan of Danish-Modern, MCM designs, the C50 seems to fit in with these. I believe they were designed by a prominent Italian designer (Ianelli?, I could be wrong)

    I also have a GE/Silex glass maker with electric burner, which have to be handled with great care, but put on a fantastic show while brewing.

    THANKS for this nice, well photographed, and entertaining post/report.

  4. Neal
    Posted July 13, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Excellent informative article. I have been using a C30A for a couple years every day now, purchased used on eBay and have accumulated some extras as backups if this should ever fail. Best cup of coffee ever but the seal (I think it’s original) has failed and I will have to order a new one. From my experience:

    – A product called “Dip-It” works incredibly well to remove old coffee stains and residue. It’s still available but is very difficult to find and expensive – but worth it. Go for the POWDER. I haven’t tried the liquid.

    – I find that brew time is the same as for my (now idle) drip machine. I start with cold water.

    – Cory glass filter rods work great with the C30A. They just rinse off and don’t require the intensive cleaning the mesh filters do. They are commonly available on eBay. Can’t say with the C50 but would be worth a try.

  5. Ben
    Posted September 20, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi all – I have 2 C-30 machines and use 1 primarily on weekends, and 1 as a back-up parts spare “just in case.” I love ’em! I just picked up a C50 at a flea market for $6 the other day, but alas, it’s missing the top lid. It’s in really great shape though, shiny, inside and out, inside is very clean, and rubber seal is very pliable and soft. I read the comment where other users found the C50 “overbrews” the coffee a bit, and after using it the first today I see what they mean. It seems like it went through the brew cycle heat setting for quite a long time compared to my C30. When I thought it was all done it actually gurgled and mixed up the coffee brew 1 or 2 more times. And for some reason the coffee did NOT want to drain or get pulled back down into the lower chamber. Yes, I used fairly course ground coffee, I grind it myself, and the levers were locked and seal good between the 2 chambers, not sure what happened there. But it just didn’t want to go back down at all. I even released the levers thinking the seal was TOO good. Still not much of a help, the coffee just dripped out of the spout. The C50 has a 2-part filter, a coarser top perforated filter over the fine mesh lower filter. My C30 only has the fine mesh filter. So not sure if I’ll keep this guy, if I can find a lid for it I might, but I’m sure that’s about as scarce as hens teeth to locate on ebay etc. Does anyone have any leads or suggestions on where I might find or search for one besides ebay? Anyway, reading the comments and info was fun, thanks!

  6. Sheldon
    Posted October 21, 2015 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    I have a C50 with a base that leaks water into the heating element below. Does anyone know where I can get it repaired?

  7. Kimmy
    Posted November 3, 2015 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you all for such helpful comments. Just received my first C20 and will attempt my first brew today. Wanted to share a bit of my experience with old coffee stain. Oxi-clean powder and boiling water. Sit whatever needs cleaning in that solution and watch it do the work; works great on mesh filters without scrubbing.

    I also read that simmering the old seal in water will bring back its flexibility. Has anyone tried this? It does not seem logical to me but then again …

  8. Debra Kunkel
    Posted December 5, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    On the C30 model it is important to know that there is a tiny hole on the rod for the spring to connect to. The hole is near the top of the rod so the hook on the spring must go in that hole. I had to really look for the hole. The coffee pot will not work correctly if the spring is not connected properly.

    • Maggie Acuff
      Posted June 13, 2017 at 1:02 am | Permalink

      The hole that you’re referring to is a vapor hole, according to Sunbeam, & it is not for attaching the spring. It sounds like your filter assembly is not correctly put together. I have several C30s & C20s. In the C30s the filter rod pushes on the spring which allows you to push the rod through the tube assembly & hook it onto the narrow end.

      I hope that you are enjoying this wonderful vacuum coffeemaker as much as I am.

  9. gregor
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    We love ours , where do we find the rubber replacement parts?
    thanks!

    • BamBam
      Posted January 26, 2016 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Gregor, if you have not found out yet, there is a company in Florida that makes various replacement gaskets. They can be found at Dayseal.net

      I ordered a replacement main gasket and secondary seal for my C30B, but it has not yet arrived. I will report my experience after it arrives and I replace the gaskets.

      • Jim Black
        Posted January 26, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        I also buy my seals from Dayseal. I am very happy with them. The materials they use now will last for many, many decades.

        My biggest problem, now that I have new, long lasting, seals, is my filter. I much prefer the very fine stainless steel mesh filters that Sunbeam made. They are permanent, and do not affect the flavor of the coffee.

        I have never found a source for these. My one and only coup was to find one that was NOS (new old stock). It’s a dream, and I no longer get ANY fine grounds in my coffee. When it breaks, I will be back to crunchy coffee for the last cup or two. Sigh.

  10. Patti Hanson
    Posted December 25, 2015 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I have a c 20. What kind of filter do I need to get for it and are there any substitutes for filters

    • Maggie Acuff
      Posted June 13, 2017 at 1:18 am | Permalink

      Hi Patti,
      You can use Melitta round flat paper filters. You will need to use two-at-a-time to keep out the grounds. They can be purchased on Amazon. I have not had a lot of luck using the original cotton filters. I also use a small fine strainer when I serve the coffee & that solves that problem.

      I love my C20s but I get more grounds & sediment from them as opposed to the C30s.

      • Captain Factoid
        Posted June 13, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Hi Debra, Pattie & Snag.

        What Debra is referring to is the mechanism used to hold the spring in place for later types of C30. The C30C, and possibly a C30A or -B use this mechanism. The original C30, which I have sitting next to me, has a pinched rod. A small round spacer plate at the top of the spring keeps it in place. The follow-on pots have the tiny little hole that the spring must hook into.

        I am not sure what mechanism the -A and -B models use. I only have a C30 and a C30C. Possibly the C30A has the pinched rod mechanism, and I think the C30B has the tiny hole in the rod. If your pot has the tiny hole, you need a spring with a very small 90 degree bend in the top end. If your pot has the pinched rod, the spring should never come off, but is not easy to replace if it does.

        The model number of all Coffeemasters is printed on a small plate on the very bottom of the lower pot. I believe the C30C is the most common these days. I don’t think all that many original C30’s (no letter) were made. I have one, and it’s a museum piece – never been used. Eat your hearts out.

  11. Mark Richardson
    Posted March 19, 2016 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    What a hoot to read about these coffee makers! Here I thought that the new purchase was a percolator! Matching the photos, it appears I bought a C-30C model–I had rinsed it out and was doing a test run so I couldn’t very well pick it up and look at the bottom for a model number! It’s in pretty good shape and the rubber gasket between the two pots is in good shape as well. I had a better cord from another pot to use and the test run seemed to work out okay, but lacking an owner’s manual, I have to ask–how long does a regular run last? This will join a trio of percolators (a Universal Coffeematic pot #4460; a glass stove top Pyrex #7759B 9-cup and an aluminum Wearever #5063 that’s also a stove top pot) for weekend coffee-making chores. My weekdays are held down by a cheap Black & Decker 4-cup drip maker.

  12. D.Carroll Newport
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Cool! Looking forward to hearing about how it works!

  13. gardenangel42
    Posted April 16, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Found this posting yesterday when looking up info on several “vintage” cooking related items I have in my pantry. My late husband was a branch manager trainee and service technician for Sunbeam Appliance Service Company when we married in 1963. His wedding gift to me was four Sunbeam kitchen appliances; one of which was the c50 coffeemaker just like the one in the photo. The other three were the chrome model of the Mixmaster, the chrome model of waffle iron with reversible grids for pancakes or waffles, and the chrome two slot “Vista” radiant Shade Control toaster. The Mixmaster moved on to a new young family 15 years ago when I replaced it with a KitchenAid mixer. The coffeemaker was put away in the pantry in the 1980 – 2000 period when we went through several of the popular automatic drip coffeemakers. The toaster has been in service all the time. I’m an only and family lives all over US, so the griddle has not seen much service in the last 15 years, but it still makes awesome toasted cheese sandwiches.

    These appliances were so beautiful that I always have taken very good care of them. We started our marriage on a shoe string so they were like status symbols at the time. Later he brought home the chrome blender with attachments, which is also still in service.

    The C50 is my only large capacity coffee maker and is used every now and then when I have friends over for parties. There are always remarks about how good the coffee is. I’m lucky to have a replacement filter my husband brought home many years ago, just in case.

    • Vivian Randazzo
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      We are looking for a coffee filter for our C50 coffee maker would you be interested in selling me your extra coffee filter

  14. Richard Gee
    Posted November 4, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    The Sunbeam coffee master was tops on my want list when we married 60 years ago.
    My parents had one and so did all my aunts and uncles.
    Still use ours every day.

    • Jim Black
      Posted November 4, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      I use my C30 every day as well. Of course I would use a C50 if I had one, but the C30 is what I’ve got.

      If anyone knows where to get a new stainless steel filter, please share that information. I know that one day I get a tiny hole in mine, and it will be gritty coffee forever after.

      –Captainfactoid/Jim Black

  15. Jim Lauck
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    A comment about brewing time on the C50: It is adjustable. There is a hex head screw in the base of the unit. One must first remove the bakelite base from the lower bowl. Remove the hex screw in the middle of the bottom. Then you must remove the two hex nuts from the electrical prongs. The bakelite base will now slip off. You will see a 6-32 machine screw with a hex head on the contact assembly. Turning this screw to the right pushes the contact assembly closer to the bi-metallic strip and shortens the brewing time (shuts off faster). Turning the screw to the left (counterclockwise) lengthens the brewing time. I recommend turning the screw only 1/2 turn at a time, putting it all back together and do a test run with only water. My C50 pushes the all the water up and switches off within 5 to 10 seconds. It pulls down in less than a minute. Bought mine at the Salvation Army for $1 in the early 1970’s. If you take care of it, it lasts forever and makes great coffee.

    • Jim Black
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Jim Lauck. That is one of the most useful Internet posts I have ever encountered.

      –Captainfactoid/Jim Black

  16. Northpamet
    Posted March 21, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    What a great posting! One question: Do you know if the round part under the mesh for is aluminum? Many thanks! Northpamet

  17. Billy Nage
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the C-50, do you know if there’s any way to take apart the upper bowl for cleaning? I don’t really need to do this but I was wondering. Turning the cone shaped tube doesn’t release anything, as with the other models with a cone tube, if you reverse turn them the tube comes out through the bowl and the gasket is released.

    My C50 has a fine gasket which is supple and not at all dried out, but I was just wondering if the whole thing comes apart for cleaning.

    Thanks for the information you posted regarding the C50.

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