And then one day a strange sound moaned across Beaufort.
It cut through the rumbling tourist traffic crawling through the town’s historic arteries. It silenced the bugs and frogs that typically chirp from the wetlands by the fire department on Cedar Street. It ducked under the branches of cedar trees and twisted around arthritic live oak limbs, it filled up Caribbean-style porches and crashed through windows on white paneled coastal cottages, and finally it swam into the ears of town residents as they made dinner or turned on the TV or tried to put their babies down for a nap.
This sound — this low, throaty whistle — delivered a special message to those who could interpret it.
It said: “Beer.”
You can either thank or blame Tom Backman for that noise. He is the man behind Mill Whistle Brewing, a nano-brewery and taproom located off Lennoxville Road in Beaufort, and both the town, and that whistle, are integral parts of this business.
Backman, a thick-bearded beer enthusiast with an accent that still betrays his Minnesotan roots, has been sitting in the taproom on an August afternoon watching thick gray clouds that have been pummeling Morehead City, Havelock, and other points west, but, as often happens, have so far completely bypassed Beaufort. Behind him are 22-ounce bottles of the various beers he’s made, to the rear of the building are barrels stuck with taps, and in front of him is a slab of beautiful red cedar that is the bar.
“This is proof any hobby can get out of control,” said Backman, who first got into homebrewing more than 20 years ago when his wife, Barb, bought him a “Mr. Beer” kit. Barb is also involved with the business; she runs the taproom and is one of the five partners of Mill Whistle Brewing.
The business is located in a beige, corrugated metal building at the back of a long driveway. It’s obscured by a weeping willow and a pile of brown mulch. Next door is the lumber yard of Safrit’s Building Supply. In fact, there are no sidewalks leading up to the business. It is almost as if the brewery is intentionally hidden.
For Backman, that’s OK. “Our business model is to be a hyper-local brewery,” he said. “I think we’ve accomplished it. More than half our clientele come by foot or bicycle. They don’t drive here. We’re in a place you just can’t find.”
But Beaufort people can. “They come out of the woodwork and they drink my beer,” he said. This was obvious from day one, when the taproom opened on April Fool’s Day, 2016 and 350 people showed up. The line stretched from the bar, out of the door, and down the driveway.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I think there was pent-up demand in Carteret County.”
Even now, as the first summer in business is coming to an end, Backman can’t keep up with the consumers. In fact, the business is only open from 3-10pm on Friday and 2-10pm on Saturday. “The demand is way stronger than I can manufacture,” he said. “We’re only open on weekends because I can’t keep up. They are drinking it as fast as I can go.”
The town and the brewery seem to share similar philosophies. Beaufort, said Backman, has a habit of doing its own thing, and not only does his beer reflect that, he makes it specifically for the 4,000-resident community. You can tell this by looking at the names of the beers. While other companies fight over naming rights, trying to come up with an new play on the word “hops,” Backman takes a different approach. The Mill Whistle beers are named after places and people.
We’ll start with the obvious: Bofirt, an IPA. Then head to Harkers Island with Hoi Toide, Low Toide and Ebb Toide, a sour, an ale and a porter, respectively. Cross the sound and we have “Lidey,” a low-alcohol, fruity beer bearing the image of Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Then there’s “Pennywort,” a saison the color of a new penny named after the weed that is the bane of local gardeners in Carteret County.
“I’ve not run into another beer called ‘Hoi Toide,’” he said.
Backman even feels that his beer “Transgender Blond” has a certain connection to the town. The beer is named in protest of the law the NC General Assembly passed in 2016 that restricts bathroom usage to the specific sex of the user.
“We [the partners] decided as a group that it’s ridiculous for the State of North Carolina to tell people what bathroom they have to use,” he said. He was worried about how it would be received by the beer drinkers in town, but not because of any political fallout. “It’s super fruity and I thought it would freak people out,” he said.
He believes if the brewery was located in a different part of the state, or even a different part of the county, patrons might not be so receptive. But not here.
“Beaufort’s about tolerating eclectic, strange people,” he said. “I sit in the brewery and I meet billionaires and I meet PhDs and I meet scientists with worldwide acclaim, and I meet artists, and I meet postmasters. It’s crazy who’s in Beaufort. There’s really interesting people all over Beaufort, a town of 4,000.
“A guy walks in and he looks rough. I later learn he’s a multibillionaire. He’s sitting in here in a torn-up T-shirt. That’s Beaufort, man. It’s this juncture where the rest of the world meets this Down East, almost cloistered culture of North Carolina. It’s really interesting.”
Backman also bought a solar-powered water heater for the brewery that gets water up to 165 degrees. Like the location, the heater doesn’t really make sense from a business perspective, but by doing this, Backman can cut back on chemicals used in the brewing process.
And this process, and the resulting beer, is what he loves. His goal, with each beer, is for it to be its own thing. He isn’t trying to make a knock-off version of something else. He refers to “Lidey” as his beer for Bud Light drinkers, but while it’s light in both alcohol and color, it is crisp and fresh and — dare I say it — tasty. He made it because he knows that hop-heads pull people out to a nano-brewery like Mill Whistle, and no doubt someone in the group will not like hoppy beers.
“If there’s nothing for them to drink, everyone gets one beer and then they’ve got to leave. I tried to find something for them to drink.”
There’s Gas Can Red, a malty ale that’s the customer favorite. There’s Beerskool, a pale ale he made in conjunction with a Carteret Community College homebrew class.
And, for now, there’s Wet-Hopped Old Plane.
So, about a year ago, a local guy named Michael Jordan came to the brewery with a bucket of hops he grew. “They’re brown and anemic and pathetic and tiny,” said Backman, who was not impressed; he declined the offer to buy them. He came back this year with that bucket, but this time it was full of beautiful, bright green flowers. Not only did Backman buy them on the spot, he paid the man six times the standard amount he pays for hops. And, rather than drying the hops in the traditional way, Backman decided to just throw them in fresh to the latest batch of beer he was making: the Old Plane IPA. So many hops went in that it made the beer cloudy, an occurrence known as “hop haze.”
“It’s just rockin’ good,” said Backman, sipping from a glass. “It’s just fresh. It’s green fresh. You can tell it’s fresh hops. I love that. I just love that.”
But what about that whistle? Why does it cry out at the same time, 4:45pm? The location of the business has a lot to do with it. Mill Whistle Brewing stands on property that was once part of Safrit’s saw mill. Workers sawed lumber at the mill for 120 years, and at 4:45pm every day the whistle sounded to announce the shift change. The mill eventually shut down sometime around 1974 — Backman has had difficulty finding an exact date — and the whistle went quiet.
Until now. While it’s a new whistle that Beaufort residents are hearing, the original whistle is inside, mounted to the wall.
Despite holding down a full-time job and traveling across the globe with Bally Refrigerated Boxes, in Morehead City, Backman still manages to spend 20 or 30 hours a week at the brewery.
“I chose Beaufort for a very specific reason,” he said. “I travel a lot. I see the whole world, but I also see our country, week after week.
“Beaufort is one of the only towns that gets it.”