Two weeks ago I did the launch party for the Happy Camper Bar Car. My new business, the Happy Camper is basically a food truck for booze built into a 1972 Airstream.
Two years ago, growing dissatisfied with my day job, I was considering starting a food truck with my brother. My real dream was to open a bar, but it seemed so mysterious and expensive at the time. I’d never worked at one. They needed all sorts of fancy equipment. My brother has been a chef for a long time so I wasn’t worried about the cost or knowledge involved in doing a food truck, but a bar? No way.
We never ended up doing it though because my brother was going to drop out of school to work on it, and I didn’t want that. I ended up taking a weeknight job at a bar, for just long enough that I felt comfortable owning one. Not that it’s rocket surgery, but just working at one for let’s say 25 to 50 shifts will save you a lot of headache. You’ll make a lot fewer mistakes than you would if you went cowboy and did it yourself, and someone will pay you for the education. It’s a no-brainer and I’m glad I did it.
I felt ready to start a bar. So I started looking at real estate. I found a spot I loved. It was owned by the county and they wanted the building do prop up the convention center next door. The door to my bar would be directly across from the door of the convention center, which meant a hundred thousand people a year would stumble out of a miserable work event looking for a drink and mine would be the only one in sight.
It was stripped down to brick and concrete. It had these beautiful cathedral ceilings because the building is built on a hill and it was at the bottom, with a gorgeous window above the high door. The perfect speakeasy. All it needed was a bar and some Edison bulbs hanging from a pipe.
The one small wrinkle was that they wanted to sell the building to make a hotel. They’ve been trying to make a deal for that for years and failing, but they didn’t want to do a lease longer than a year just in case. Which made it hard for me to justify putting much money into it, even though I think that hotel is about as likely to occur as a zombie outbreak.
But mysteriously, they were also getting a renovation budget from the county to turn it into usable space. They seemed like they might be amenable to letting me using said budget to build my bar instead of putting in generic carpet and white drop panel ceilings like the old UPS store next to it.
I was feeling optimistic. And that’s when they found asbestos. The cost for them to remove it would have been more than I paid in rent for six years, so understandably they decided to just wait for the zombie apocalypse. So the one spot I wanted was gone.
I could have looked for another. My city’s downtown has plenty of vacancy. But that’s when I saw a couple people online doing food trucks for booze.
Sure, I’d joked about that several times. But the inability to get a liquor license seemed like a deal breaker. Except, of course, if you do private events. Then you don’t even need one. What a great loophole.
It goes really well with what I love doing. I really like batching cocktails. There are so many advantages to them over made to order ones. You have more control over dilution and chilling when you can divorce the two. You can ensure a level of consistency far beyond even the best bartenders. You can make things bubbly. You can serve people the highest quality cocktails at beer speed. And most importantly, you can do it without ever washing dishes. The weight of the water it would require to be stirring and shaking on the Airstream wouldn’t fit on the axle.
So when I found the loophole that made it possible, I was talking to my good friend Heather and she wanted to jump into it with me. We went for it. We went from talking about it to owning a stripped-bare Airstream in under a month, and having a party three months later. Do that with a bar!
The Launch Party
Fast forward to four months later. The trials and tribulations involved in getting the Airstream ready would make a blog post, or maybe a book but we were past it and it was time for the launch party. The girl doing the interior woodwork was coming down to the wire. The party was on Sunday and I got a bar top installed Saturday afternoon. Ever built out a tap system in a couple hours? It ain’t easy! I knew I’d have to run to the homebrew store for something, and they were only open until 5, so I got started ASAP.
Thankfully I’d done everything I could beforehand. I’d cut all of the beverage tubing and drilled holes in the side of the fridge to run it through. I’d made sure I could fit six kegs and two gas tanks (one CO2, one nitro) in the left-hand side of the fridge. I’d installed the shanks and valves, including four custom post-mix soda valves on beer-tower sized soda shanks made for me by CM Becker. All we had to do was screw the towers into place, run the lines, and connect the liquid disconnects.
It went off without too much trouble. I turned out to be one tap handle shy because we never had time to make our custom ones (next time) but that was all I really needed from the homebrew store. I built the system and ran each drink through its line.
On the far left was beer on draft. I’d simply gone to a growler fill and filled my 3 gallon Corny Keg and recarbonated. The next drink was one I made up featuring Rittenhouse Rye, lemon, apple cider, Aperol, and mulled simple syrup.
We had my homemade ginger beer on draft for mule variants, including my brown butter dark and stormy. We had Jack Rudy tonic force-carbonated in another keg.
The last two were cocktails. One is Chartreuse and root beer. It was an idea I’d gotten from Chris at A Bar Above (I think) and have been playing with for a long time. For this version, which is by far the best, by the way, I used:
1.5 oz. Chartreuse
1 oz. Monin Rootbeer Syrup
5 oz. Water
1 dash orange bitters
I scaled that up to a few gallons using my handy dandy cocktail calculator then force carbonated at 32 PSI at about 28F. Do yourself a favor and let this one rest a day. I made some to test and tried it day of, and it tasted like it needed more orange bitters and Chartreuse. Then I tossed the rest back in my fridge and forgot about it until Heather came over a couple days later. I tasted it again then and it was magically the greatest drink of all time.
The last tap was my carbonated serrano margarita. Maybe I’ll explain the recipe for that one some time in the future. It’s a blog post in and of itself.
Here’s the full menu:
#1. Detach gas lines from kegs before driving down the road. Turns out liquid can back up into the gas lines, and from there up into your distributors and regulator from the sloshing. I spent the first half-hour trying to unjam the kegs as a result. One of them got halfway empty and never flowed again.
#2. Keep your tap lines accessible. Ours are hidden behind the bar and wrapped in insulation. It’s a bitch to get to them and if something jams, I’m screwed. (I don’t think I need glycol, the stuff never sits around enough to get cold, but if it starts foaming due to temp I might build an air-cooled system. I don’t anticipate having to do so though, insulation should be good enough.)
#3. Move the CO2 tanks outside of the refrigerator. I had not accounted for the fact that I’d have extra kegs that needed to stay cold, so room in there was at a premium. I’m going to drill holes in the right for two lines, and set up quick disconnects in the fridge so I can easily swap out distributors. That’ll make the whole thing much more organized and easy to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.
#4. Test the Airstream with a non-contact tester before every event. This didn’t happen at the party but later at my house, thankfully. My house is really old and my garage has a GFCI in it into which I plug the camper. You’d think that’d make it safe, and it probably would if whatever idiot wired it decades ago hadn’t had current coming out of the grounding wire. An Airstream isn’t grounded because it sits on big rubber tires. And the shell is highly conductive. So it zapped me. You just never know what you’re going to be plugging into, and if an electrical source is wired wrong a customer could get seriously injured!
#5. People really love home-made ginger beer. It was like half the drinks that walked out. I’ll account for that at future events. I was a little worried that my menu was a little too hardcore for casual cocktail fans. Not so. I think I sold one drink with tonic in it the whole time. I’ll probably repurpose the remaining case of Jack Rudy for a special drink, like an Elderflower G&T on draft, and use one more cocktail and one fewer mixer generally.
#6. I should have spent more time calculating the PSI needed before I ordered the parts. The lines were 12’ long, plus there’s a 2 foot rise, and that’s too much resistance for 3/16” ID line. I had to pump it out at about 35-40 PSI. Good thing I never had to use my personal remanufactured ball lock keg, it vents around there. (Note to self, fix that.) Our new ones don’t even seem to vent at 55, which is the highest I’ve taken them, but still. I couldn’t figure out why the beer wasn’t flowing well when the event started, turns out I was just way off on that.
The shaken drink on draft relies on a lot of pressure forcing it through the stout faucet. At home on my personal equipment, 30 PSI gets a great drink. That’s about 22 PSI more than I’d serve a carbonated drink at. I couldn’t even get the Fireside up near that, so it ended up with a texture I wasn’t 100% happy with. Still tasted good but wasn’t perfect. So I’m switching to 1/4” ID line. That’ll let me drop the pressure way down to about 8.
Anyway, I would say overall the party was a success. The drinks were really good. When the taps jammed I spent a half hour fixing them, but we got through it. I then spent two hours wanting to go behind a shed and cry! But I muscled through that too. And then it was over.
I’m pretty optimistic about our venture. We’ve now cleared most of the major hurdles that were worrying me. I’ve got another venture I’m working on to go right alongside it too. And I’m going to greatly improve the batching app. And I’m even working on a book about batching drinks too. So stay tuned.