Photos: Jeremiah Watt, Daniel Noll, Andy Earl

03/22/17

Paul Tralka

Paul restores camper vans, works at a craft brewery, and currently drives to the surf in their 1973 Chevy Balboa mini-motorhome.

I came across Carabiner Coffee a while ago on Instagram and have enjoyed following along. And apparently it seems several others have too. For those of you unfamiliar, this is the holy grail of mobile coffee carts. Proprietary roasts are fine tuned and hand selected by the founder, and he serves them using the simple pour over technique out of a baby blue bay window from a VW bus. Not only do you get a fresh cup of joe (potentially in a dirt parking lot near a climbing spot), but you also get to see the vision of a guy who has followed his heart. I recently caught up with the founder, Erik Gordon, while he was in Boulder, CO.

How did this all come about?

Well, (laughs), it definitely started with climbing. I was an instructor all through college. I biked across the country by myself a week after graduating college. And for the first time—primarily to get warm—I began to drink coffee. I really enjoyed it and understood why everyone was into it. So for years after that trip and after some time in Portland, I moved to Breckenridge (CO) and took a job at a small coffee shop while still dabbling as a climbing instructor. I became comfortable with all things coffee and became confident in the coffee industry. I thought, “Hmm...how am I going to do this?” I wanted to own a business and travel, and I always wanted a VW van. So then it just clicked. That's what I should do. I should buy a van and sell coffee to climbers. (laughs)



So then, how did you find the van that would become the one?

I searched for a few months for a van and found one in South Dakota on Craigslist. I talked with the owners for about a month. I eventually gave them a 24-hour offer that was like, “Shit or get off the pot.” I’d never even see the van before! It was a good deal, and they took it and shipped the van to Denver for me. I picked it up there, and for the next six months, I remodeled it in Breckenridge to become a food truck (sinks and generators and all). I’ve actually remodeled it three times to perfect the coffee and travel necessities. To do the whole thing right, I thought I had to go all food truck official to get approval and permits from health officials. But, it turned out, the town of Breckenridge shut me down. So I moved to Seattle because I heard they were more friendly in that regard. I started selling coffee around town and out in the mountains to climbers. I did that for about a year. Eventually I said, “Fuck it. I’m gonna tour around the country and do this.” So I started touring with REEL ROCK, and it was on that tour that Patagonia called and asked me to join them on their Worn Wear tour. Since then, I’ve been trying to connect with the outdoor industry through my van and Carabiner Coffee while still climbing and having a blast.



Do you just sell cups of coffee out of the van or is Carabiner Coffee a brand of coffee that you serve?

So Carabiner Coffee has all its own roasts. When I came up with the idea, I met with a private roaster here in Boulder to create three blends that make up the roasts in the coffee I sell. We did a ton of test and roasts. I went with three roasts—light, medium and dark—to keep it simple. Once we got the roasts and blends, the roaster would mail them to me as I traveled and needed more. It’s a pretty sweet little relationship we have. It was a creative process, and it was gratifying to be able to not only be able to create the brand, but also to be the spokesperson. And I stand behind it...literally.

It looks like you make a lot of people smile. There was a time when people who lived in their van were considered dirtbags. But now, are people seeing your van and saying, “Wow man, you're living the dream!”

I always knew that if I started a business, I wanted to make a positive impact. I wanted to give people a visual representation of my company, whatever that was going to be. To connect with people in the van and climbing community has been great. But even to people who don’t live in vans, it is such an attraction. I’ve had amazing interactions with all types of people because as I’m making them coffee, there are a few minutes where I get to engage with them. Usually we end up talking for longer and I get all these awesome perspectives. For me, it was alway about putting out a positive message.

Is it cool to see this van community grow and for you to see this movement come alive? Are people just stoked on you and your brand and what you are presenting them visually? Do they think, “Wow, maybe it’s possible?”

I know vanlife is always depicted as, “Oh, it’s so easy. You just travel and have fun all the time in beautiful places.” Well, it took a lot of work. Years actually. It is probably twice as hard to live in a van, but it’s the passion to do it that I am all about. That passion is alway what I want to share, and to have a broad audience. I knew the van would help me share that message. It’s amazing that it has taken off to go beyond the climbing and van community. I’m really stoked on that.



I can see your positive vibe on your social media and I know driving a bus makes a lot of people smile. Between your vibe and the van’s vibe, it looks like a smile factory on wheels. I’ve experienced people seeing my van and getting stoked as they drive by. But you’re stopped and serving them coffee, so I bet you get to really hear some great stories.

When you drive a van and listen to people, it seems like everyone has some type of van story. What you are putting out is extremely authentic and grassroots marketing at it finest, but it's not really marketing. It is just you being you. I think that’s what captures me and others. Many brands try to target a demographic from the outside. And you seem to be on the inside growing out and engaging. That is what I see as a win-win situation. It seems like sometimes there’s a need to justify living in your van if you have 100K followers on social media. And people who try to gain followers sometimes put value on their choices to live that way. Everyone wants to have a following, but that is where it can get messy. I can totally see you engaging with your audience as as I am one of your follower. There are multiple levels to what you are delivering to your audience and for that I admire you.

So whats next? Are you going to have a van in every city? What’s in the future for Carabiner Coffee?

Well I bought another van. It’s actually a yellow 1968 double cab VW with a rad roof rack. I got it so that I could travel down back roads in a VW. I wanted to serve coffee out of the back of the truck and be outside as opposed to serving it from inside a van. I discovered I didn’t have the time and energy to take it to the level I wanted, and find myself driving the van more often. So I’m not sure where I’m going to go with that just yet. I am starting a small pour over coffee shop here in Boulder because the business has grown over the past few months and the van can’t sustain it. I’ve had to consolidate what is happening right now. I am so excited. I’m like, “Wow, I have a career now.” (laughs) Crazy to think I started a career by driving around in a van! I will still drive the van and travel when the coffee shop opens (maybe sometime in April). I hope to hire some climbers who want to learn about coffee and use it in the same way I have to connect with people.
The shop is pretty basic. I am pretty much putting the same setup I have in the van in the coffee shop. My goal always and forever has been to be in the van and drive it to beautiful places, seeing and climbing in as many spots as possible. That’s really what I want my future to be. I’ve been so fortunate to connect with outdoor companies. I’ve got to meet people and brands that I have alway admired. I’ve been asked to do some sponsorship programs with the van. I am going to Iceland to make some coffee and shoot some photos soon. So I am like, “Wow, if I can do what I want and actually make a living out of it, that’s what I’ll continue to do!” If people are stoked out of their mind on it, then I’ll continue. I’ll continue regardless. I’m just riding the wave.  



I’m so happy for you, man. You have such a good outlook. It’s nice to hear your enthusiasm and see someone who deserves success. Did you see this coming? Are you shocked?

I just kinda did what I wanted to do. I’ve kind of always done that. I want people to follow their hearts.
I wouldn’t say I am shocked exactly. It’s been more of a thrill to be on this journey. Did I think three years ago a company would ask me to go to Iceland and make coffee for them? Or wear a jacket for them? No way! It has been so unique to talk and work with the people behind the brands I have alway admired. I am trying to be as happy as possible and enjoy it. If it tanked for some reason, I’d have a hell of a story and experience to share!  

Visit Carabiner Coffee's website