The kitchen cupboard that harbors our coffee and tea mugs is a cluttered arrangement of mismatched ceramic, each one striking a pose that’s grossly out of sync with the next.
For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the mug cupboard is — and has always been, without discussion — an acceptable point of dissonance among an otherwise seamless system of kitchen congruity. It’s a segregated corner where misfits and scoundrels converge, their nicks and disfigurements and eclectic logos betraying a textured history that’s ill-suited for the Riedel crystal and the holiday china, which enjoys a polished existence elsewhere.
It’s a place, too, with its own hierarchical pecking order, where certain cups have gained favor through the years, in addition to a particular patina of flavor.
In recent weeks, however, the cupboard has a new king, toppling the ranks of longtime stalwarts and disrupting the jungle politics through which peace has prevailed.
Its name is “The Cougar.”
For nearly a decade, “The Cougar” lived behind the bar at the Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish, a beloved establishment that on Feb. 17 closed its doors after occupying the prominent corner of Central Avenue and Railway Street for a quarter-century.
In addition to prompting an outpouring of tears and emotional sentiments from its local regulars, the brewery’s closure spurred the exodus of an untold number of mugs belonging to members of the elite and exclusive “Stein Club,” an institution that permitted its constituents to quaff reasonably priced beer from personalized mugs of their choosing.
Years ago I chose “The Cougar,” a towering and exquisitely handcrafted stein that I acquired through questionable tactics at a white elephant gift exchange, but whose creative genesis sprung forth from the acclaimed ceramic artist Tom O’Brien and his “American Animal Stein” series — a mug menagerie that included “The Wolf,” “The Bald Eagle,” and “The Mustang,” all of whom eventually joined “The Cougar” in the Great Northern Brewing Company’s stables.
Torn asunder by the brewery’s closure this month, the occupants of this tight-knit animal kingdom have been relegated to the far-flung kitchen cupboards of their human owners, sentenced to live out their days penned up with the other castaways and derelicts of the dish world.
It’s an unfortunate end to a glorious run that began almost as soon as I arrived in the Flathead Valley. Knowing no one, I sought out company at the brewery, and company I found.
Not only did I forge some of my closest friendships at the brewery, I developed a fondness for its employees and their dedication to the community, particularly as they championed causes with far-reaching consequences by hosting regular fundraisers for nonprofits.
They also exuded warmth to regular customers, creating a family-like environment in which I always felt welcomed.
One day, when misfortune befell “The Cougar” and its ceramic handle was cleaved from the body of the stein, a longtime employee mended the shards with a dab of superglue and what I perceived as genuine affection.
Opening the kitchen cupboard on a recent morning, I reached for my usual coffee cup and paused when I spotted “The Cougar” glowering at me from the shelves, wild-eyed and bearing fangs.
My wounds are still too fresh, but time will surely heal them.
Until then, long live the king.
Long live the brewery!