When thinking about craft beer, some characteristics come to mind: taste, creativity, and community, just to name a few. Mill Whistle Brewing, located in the gorgeous, historic beach town of Beaufort, NC, fully encompasses each of these. Mill Whistle was one of the first craft breweries in their region and is home to a “seriously tricked out” single-barrel system that has produced 42 different beers. We were able to sit down with Tom Backman, Founder and Head Brewer for Mill Whistle, to discuss the brewery, Beaufort, and why being a local brewer is so important to him.
Tell me about yourself: What’s your background, and how did Mill Whistle Brewing come about? When was Mill Whistle initially founded?
I’m trained as an engineer; ironically a lot of craft brewers are. I was also in the business of refrigeration equipment and while working in that field, I was able to conduct business with a multitude of breweries and begin brewing my own beer at home. While working with these accounts, I became more and more interested in craft beer and the brewing process, and in 2013 we officially opened the Mill Whistle Brewery!
In our first year, we didn’t brew any beer. Instead, we focused on perfecting our system, and any beer we made was donated to neighbors, friends, and relatives for weddings and other special occasions. After our initial year, we began to bottle and sell our beer, and when we opened the Mill Whistle Taproom another year later, we stopped bottling our beer and exclusively produced kegs.
Why the switch to kegs?
If you’re a small brewery like me, there is an abundance of profit in putting your beer in kegs rather than in bottles. Most of our business comes from people visiting our taproom or other local businesses that carry our beer behind their bars.
When did you realize you wanted to work in the craft beer industry?
Yeah, I used to have these events where I would serve large crowds some of my homebrew, and at one of those events, everybody in the room just said, “Dude, you need to do this.” So, I did! Actually, some of those people became my partners in the brewery. That was in 2012 and I haven’t looked back.
What was the first beer you drank?
The first beer I ever had was a Miller High Life. Even more significant though, my first craft beer was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that I had in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I could not believe beer could taste that good!
What’s your all-time favorite Mill Whistle beer?
Our Beer Princess! Beer Princess is an aged beer (aged four years on oak). It’s not a normal yeast beer; we ferment it on a culture I took off some malted grain in 2013. It’s incredibly flavorful!
What is Mill Whistle’s best-selling beer?
We have an IPA called Indignant Bullfrog – it’s actually the first beer we made at the brewery and it’s hands down our best-selling beer. It’s not a juicy or lighter IPA like what is popular nowadays: it’s almost like an American take on an English IPA, full-bodied and delicious.
What is your favorite type of beer to brew?
Sour beers are definitely one of my favorite types of beers to brew. There are two different types of sours: kettle sours, which are what most breweries typically make, as well as a fermenter-aged sour. Out of the two, I would have to say I prefer to brew fermenter-aged sours, as you get to experience the process of the beer gradually changing and evolving over time and then maintain the process to ensure your beer comes out exactly how you want it to. It’s pretty rewarding.
I saw that you continued a Beaufort tradition after you acquired your Mill Whistle. Could you elaborate?
One of my partners who convinced me to get into this business, Bob Safrit, was responsible for this: his family has owned the property on which the brewery sits, and for 125 years, the Safrit lumber mill was there. For 125 years, at shift change this steam whistle blew every single day at 4:45 PM. We were able to get the original steam whistle from the mill (which sits inside the taproom), and we got an identical replica as well. That replica now goes off at 4:45 PM every day and is the very reason we are named Mill Whistle Brewing!
Your unique taproom has me wanting to come take a visit to Beaufort, NC! Can you tell me more about the town?
Beaufort is one of the oldest towns in all of North Carolina. Historically, Beaufort was an industrial town with lumber and fish mills, but this has changed in recent years. Now, we are a tourism and fishing town as we are located right on the ocean – our brewery is located just two blocks away from the shore.
Our local history is a major pull for many tourists: as one of the oldest towns in the state, we have a very colorful history riddled with pirates, fishermen, and whaling. This place is an absolute gold mine for beer names!
What has the Beaufort community meant to you both as a business owner and a community member?
When we created our business plan, we wanted to be a neighborhood brewery, and in fact we are! And though our clientele is 70% tourists, our locals defend and take care of the place like it was their own. For us, community is everything. There’s a tremendous sense of family at the taproom – it’s a unique environment that we absolutely love!
Where can we find your beer? What is your most successful distribution channel?
You can find us directly at our brewery, and our beer is always on tap at 34 North, a major hotel and convention center located right down the road from our brewery (and another Fintech client!) The local bars & restaurants in Beaufort will also carry our beer whenever we have enough to distribute their way. As for future expansion – the answer is no! We love our little place in life and that’s what we’re going to be.
What do you see as the next big trend in the craft beer industry?
I don’t know if I would necessarily use the word “big,” but I believe the next emerging trend for the craft beer industry is aged beers. I touched on this when discussing fermenter-aged sours, and I believe more and more breweries that have the space and capacity to brew these longer-processed beers will be hopping on this trend.
From day one at Mill Whistle, before we started selling, we have been aging beer. We now sell brews that have been aged three to four years, and this process creates a beer with wine-esque properties and a truly unique flavor palette. Be on the lookout!