This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of our print edition.
For many of us, vans represent a break from the workaday world. #Vanlife is usually something you do until you run out of money, then you get a new job, save up, and start the cycle again. For Erik Gordon, owner and operator of Carabiner Coffee, his van is his job. Erik operates a mobile coffee shop at campgrounds, trailheads, and climbing areas out of a 1971 Volkswagen van he’s dubbed “Ol’ Blue.” We spoke to Erik about coffee, climbing, and his recently funded Kickstarter.
How did your love affair with coffee begin?
After I graduated college, I biked across the country and ended up in Oregon. I needed something to warm me up on a super-gloomy, cold, wet Pacific Northwest day. I pulled over to the side of the road to this little hut-barn thing and had my first cup of coffee. I got so stoked on it. I was like, “Holy crap! I understand why people are all about this.”
And how’d Carabiner start?
I’d been working at a small, independent coffee shop in Summit County, Colorado, trying to learn everything I could. Then I was pretty much just looking on Craigslist, trying to find a way to start a business. Ol’ Blue popped up. I said, “Holy shit. That’s what I need to do.” I worked on the van for five or six months before I sold my first cup of coffee. Most of the battle was getting it up to health code. That was gnarly, but I did it!
Where were you based in the beginning?
I got the registration in Breckenridge, but the town wouldn’t give me a mobile business permit. I started selling coffee on scenic lookouts outside of the incorporated town boundaries so it was legal. One day the Forest Service pulled up and said I was on USFS land. The state patrol, the local cops, everyone had come and checked out my papers. It was fine with all of them, except the Forest Service. They were like, “No, dude. You gotta go.”
Was the original plan to run a full business, or just a way to extend road trips?
The dream was always to be able to travel as I am now, having the coffee fully support me—to be able to climb and mountain bike and run and everything, wherever I want.
It must get pretty crowded in Ol’ Blue
Oh my god, you have no idea! Especially in the past year. Now I have shirts and chalkbags, and I carry all the coffee I’m going to ship out for subscriptions. All I have is a bench to sleep on. The rest is this huge coffee gear pile. It all works out, though. I’m stoked.
What do you sell out of the van café?
I had a whole espresso machine in there at one point. I brewed lattes and everything. But with all the health laws—there’s so much involved with that—I got sick of it. Then the espresso machine broke. I was kind of relieved, so I started doing just the classics: drip, Aeropress, pour-over. That actually eliminates me from needing a certification for wherever I’m selling. There are no hazardous/spoilable goods like milk or anything.
What’s an average day of working in Ol’ Blue like?
I like to wake up at 5:30 a.m. If I’m in a crowded area, I’ll drive the van away and make coffee, so I don’t wake anybody up. Then I’ll drive back to the campsite or the trailhead and sell coffee for two to three hours. I go until I sell out of drip coffee, run out of solar energy, or my water runs out. That’s when I get to stop working and go climbing. Usually around 11 or 12 I’m on the rock somewhere, which is really fun.
And you also sell beans, right?
When I started the business I got in touch with a private coffee roaster in Boulder, Colorado. We worked together to develop The Skootch, The Business, and The Dream, which are medium, dark, and light roasts, respectively. Whenever I’m in need of more coffee on the road, he ships it to whatever address I give him. It allows me to be totally independent while still providing awesome coffee for everybody.
What’s the story behind your upcoming storefront?
I was working with a videographer buddy of mine. He was looking to get into outdoor films. I thought it’d be great to film a video to tell people about Carabiner. So we made this video and it turned out super great. Around that time I started thinking, “I would love to have a headquarters—somewhere, to be able to go out and tour then come back and have a functioning shop.” Two weeks after the video was finished, I was like, “Let’s try Kickstarter and see what happens.” To be honest, I was not expecting that it was gonna go. It was just, “Why not?” And then it went really well. When I realized people wanted me to do this so much, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make it happen. And since my roaster is in Boulder, I figured that would be the best spot to be based.
So are you going to settle down in Boulder once the shop opens?
The whole point of the shop is so I can actually travel more. That’s my dream and the theme of the business. I’m going into a partnership with a good friend that I met up in Summit County. He’s an old Yosemite climber, and he let me work on the van in his garage when I was first getting it going. He wants to manage the coffee shop for me while I’m gone, and that allows me to keep going on tours, promoting the business, and living the life that I wanted from the start. People have been wary since I said I’d be opening the shop. They think I’m gonna stop driving the hippie van around. I’m still gonna be doing that.
Learn more about Erik and Ol’ Blue, and order coffee at carabinercoffee.com.