By Catherine Franks
This is the origin story of Steampunk and it is also a story about an ending.
In the Beginning...
Ten years ago last month (in October 2011) the very first idea which eventually became Steampunk Coffee began to germinate. The seed was planted when Stockbridge Market began and the idea grew around a little yellow van called Mavis.
The plucky little 1976 VW Westfalia started going to Stockbridge Market to serve coffee and cakes, bouncing up and down the kerb to park at the market's entrance. Her sunny wee face was a warm welcome to the market and she even featured as a destination point for tourists in Lonely Planet, as pointed out to us by some Italian visitors. Her very first version was called the Cafe Wagen with livery created by local designers Simon and Amanda Heath which was inspired by latte art.
Version 1.0 Steampunk, The Cafe Wagen, 2011
Mavis also went around to all sorts of other events - markets, music festivals, weddings, and the Scottish VW gathering at Volksfling for the better part of three years before Steampunk found its forever home in the warehouse at Kirk Ports in North Berwick. Running a mobile coffee business was challenging but crazy fun and we were serving specialty coffee at these events at a time when that just wasn't around. I remember people being so grateful to find amazing coffee at an event that they would return multiple times throughout the day. We caffeinated a lot of festival goers and I hope gave a bunch of folk their surprise early experiences of specialty coffee.
The Hidden Door Festival, 2016
What's in a name?
Mavis is basically responsible for our name too - using a ramshackle old van to serve coffee at events requires a lot of reinvention, self building and remaking of old things to serve new purposes. Steampunk is the name of a literary genre which imagines a future world powered by Victorian machinery. Our old van, old roaster, and traditional lever espresso machine were there trying to find a place in the modern world. The Steampunk vibe seemed to fit perfectly with our McGyver approach to life and so the new coffee roasting business begun from my garage in North Berwick in 2012 was christened. Mavis metamorphosed from the Cafe Wagen to the Steampunk van with a livery designed by the Too Much Fun Club who we met when working at the Kelburn Garden Party around then.
Version 2.0, Steampunk inspired van livery
We spent many happy years serving Steampunk coffee from the van at Stockbridge market. Basically a decade of them.
Rachel Seago and Lewis McKenzie at Stockbridge
Over that time, we changed constantly. Our packaging, our offering, how we brewed, even had a couple of different old VWs doing the rounds for a while. But apart from the 18 months of Covid we were there pretty much throughout.
Oscar and Ernie with market founder Jeff
The way we roll
The old Probat roaster we use to roast our coffee is housed in our old warehouse building heated by log burners. Our vintage furniture is repurposed to fit our current day requirements. The way we look is due entirely to our love of keeping old things going and reusing them. Often with the creative hand of some very talented folk.
Remember the water jugs we used to use when we opened that had been fashioned out of old wine bottles by local glass artists? And now, in our latest incarnation, our lovely vintage bike which was donated to us by local bike shop owner Dave when we first opened has been updated by neon artist Solas. It is something old and sentimental to us, but made new.
Version 3.0, designed by Jobomart
Our Steampunk-ness is not a 'brand' or a pastiche of shabby chic. It isn't a theme. It is old stuff made to work and keep going. I remember cafe visitors in the early days thinking that our sacks of beans were a prop and that we were somehow meant to be a Steampunk theme park. Over the years on the one hand we have had plenty of criticism for our worn out chairs and our weird tables and on the other hand faced criticism for not being Steampunk enough.
Eco is not a theme
Our ethos of reuse cuts right to the heart of our personal environmental approach. It also cuts to the heart of our imperfection. Because we are, of course, perfectly imperfect. But nowadays when being green is an exercise in PR by most corporates, we can honestly say that our own approach is baked in to our set up and very much a part of our identity as a business.
Is it better to have a shiny new efficient and clean air roaster or keep going with an old gas powered cast iron drum roaster? Is a brand new electric van better than a van which was built 45 years ago and just keeps going, with regular upkeep like the Forth Road Bridge? Is it better to keep reusing until it can no longer be used or replace regularly with updated technology? I'm afraid I don't have the answer. But the way that we work is to generally keep reusing and updating as we go until that is no longer possible.
Restoration, fuelled by Steampunk Coffee
Back to our roots
We were very excited when Covid restrictions started to ease in late summer 2021 and we were able to return to serve coffee again at Stockbridge Market. It felt like a fresh beginning and yet a return to our roots at the same time. Mavis had had some restoration work on her wheel arches by my pal Robb in February 2020 and she had been all set to return to the market when Covid hit. For the two years up until then we had been bringing in a filter coffee set up as Mavis had desperately needed bodywork done. So we were happy to finally bring Mavis back to the market. But little did we know what was lurking underneath...
We updated Mavis again with talented young artist Finlay Paterson illustrating his way around her interior. Lewis and I put together a new set up from which we were finally able to serve espresso again alongside filter coffee. We built everything in to the newly repainted cupboard and newly covered bench so that set up and take down was the easiest it has ever been.
Version 4.0: interior update by Finlay (@smoothcactoos)
All good things...
Sometimes the Universe calls time though and when it does it's important to listen. And it has called time on Mavis and her life at Stockbridge Market. Sadly Mavis is broken. And broken in a way that just isn't fixable to get us back to the market. In fact she is broken in a part of her chassis that is usually the only remaining unbroken part in these vans when they finally die. It might well have happened the last time she bounced down off of that kerb leaving Stockbridge market.
very big part, very broken
But, lovers of Mavis, now is not the time for tears for I know a genius restoration mechanic who can save her. But what will be needed to save her is just not something that can happen right now in order for her to continue at the market.
Look away, I'm about to get nerdy: Mavis is an amazing van and is well worth saving. She is an original Westfalia Helsinki conversion with a 2 litre (from factory) engine. A left hand drive van, she was imported from Germany into the Uk shortly before I bought her in 2007. She also has that super rare spare wheel box on the front that makes her stand out. She has had a lot of very high quality resto done over the years and has a manageable plan of action for future resto quite separate from this big major new repair which is needed. So the question is will I be undertaking this in future or selling her to someone else who will do it? I don't know just now. She is very much part of our family and we would like to keep her. So for now she will go into retirement (indoors) to preserve her until I can make the decision.
Check out the jaunty angle of the rear wheel!
Mavis will attend her very last event (arriving in declining rock star fashion on the back of a trailer) at the Winter Wonderland by Rogue Village this Christmas. Myself and various members of Team Steam will be serving coffees and hot chocolates from Mavis on the grounds of the beautiful Gosford House from 17th - 23rd December. We really hope you can pop along to say goodbye and drink a coffee toast to her future.
As for our pitch at Stockbridge Market, we leave that in the very best hands - those of our good friends Lewis and Eilidh of Bearded Barista. They have a beautiful set up, one which is infinitely more professional than Steampunk's ;-) and will continue to serve incredible coffee at the market which is at the heart of that neighbourhood. Our chapter at Stockbridge is over but theirs is just begun and we are excited to watch them grow.