What's Brewing? 

Pondering shifting paradigms or looking for a decent beer with your ribeye.

A friend told me recently that somebody's opening the first Starbucks in Montana. She said it with a combination of awe and admiration, like the brave folks in Montana had fought off the invasion of the coffee clones and maintained their integrity -- or that Montana was such a backwash that Starbucks didn't even bother with it.

Either way, it didn't sound right, no Starbucks in Montana. I mean, there's colleges in Montana and offices and stuff. People need their coffee.

So, being slightly more statistical than romantic, I cruised over to Starbucks.com and plugged "Montana" into their store locator. Turns out there's 10 Starbucks in Montana. They're huddled together in three cities, and half of them are kiosks in an Albertsons or Safeway or somesuch. Pioneers, you might say, not wandering too far into Indian Country.

Now, if I were a real statistical dork, I might have gone from there to the official Web site of the state of Montana (State.mt.us), and I might have spent some time (say, half a cup's worth) digging around for demographic and geographical information, and I might be able to tell you that Montana has roughly 145,000 square miles of land and 927,000 people, or six people per square mile. As they might say out there, that ain't many folks. And if I happened to keep a calculator in my drawer, I might also point out that Montana has one Starbucks for every 14,500 square miles and 92,700 people. That ain't many Starbucks.

Tennessee, by comparison, has 5.7 million people. Shelby County has 906,000 or almost as many as the whole state of Montana. Our whole state is just 41,000 square miles, for a ratio of 138 people per square mile. That's a fair number of folks. We've got 61 Starbucks in the state, for a total of one Starbucks for each 672 square mile. Compare all this to Washington State, where the Starbucks madness began: They've got 466 Starbucks!

Fortunately, I am not a statistics dork. I am a traveler, a man of the road, a free spirit roaming the highways of our great land. Or, at least, I used to be. And it was on just such a spiritual rambling, at the end of a long day's drive, when I arrived, yearning only for sustenance, companionship, and a place to lay my head, in the town of Browning, Montana (population 1,065). They have one hotel and one restaurant in Browning, and I was one tired, hungry dude.

The room was 22 bucks, and the restaurant was just a few tables in a closed-off room next to a bar. Bud Girls sprawled in a poster on the wall, baseball was on the tube, and the waitress put down her smoke to take my order.

"I'll go for the ribeye and baked potato," I said, forever sticking with the local specialties. "And what kind of beer do you have?"

"All of 'em," she said.

All of 'em. Well, okay, I thought, I'm in the Great Northwest ...

"I'd like a Sierra Nevada," I said. A fine, California pale ale.

"A what?" asked the waitress.

"A Sierra Nevada," I said.

"We don't have that one."

"How about, um, a Bass?"

Blank stare. Shouldn't have gone with the English beer.

"Henry's?" That one's from Oregon.

"Nope."

Hmmm. This is where you hit the "reset" button.

"Okay, so which beers do you have?"

"All of 'em," she said. "Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Michelob, Miller Genuine Draft ..."

Her voice trailed off, and she looked at me with the perfect waitress stare: expectant, not rushed, somewhere between patient and not so patient. Ready. We understood each other perfectly now. I was a guy from out of town she'd never see again, and she was going to bring me meat, a potato, and an American beer. We aren't going to act like we enjoy each other's company or that one single thing beyond food-for-money is going to occur here. No cultural paradigms will be shifted tonight in Browning. There's a purity about it, a perfect simplicity.

"MGD," I said, and she was gone.

I confess, I used to tell this story as an example of a poor, sophisticated traveler trying to get a real beer in a backwash province. Somehow, though, putting the words "Starbucks" and "Montana" in the same sentence changed my attitude.

I didn't notice it at first, but when I heard about Starbucks expanding their operations in the Treasure State, I fell over to the romantic side. Now, when I think about that (by the way, tough) steak in Browning and that (tough) waitress selling (tough-to-drink) beers, I kind of hope she's still there, still smoking and handing out $8 ribeyes under the watchful sprawl of the Bud Girls. I'd hate to think she's been replaced by a college freshman smiling at everyone and offering Norah Jones' favorite tunes on a CD.

No doubt that waitress has seen her first espresso-machine salesperson by now -- like me, on his way somewhere else, never to be seen again, but taking a shot at life in Browning for a night. I wonder what kind of beer he had, and I wonder if they're serving lattes in the bar yet.

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