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A Brief History of Billy Beer

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Bettmann/CORBIS

When the national press descended on Plains, GA, during the 1976 presidential campaign, the journalists were looking for some insight into Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter’s character. They found something even better: Carter’s hard-drinking younger brother, gas station owner Billy.

The media quickly fell in love with the bespectacled, beer-chugging younger Carter. Billy’s Southern-fried buffoon character and over-the-top friendliness provided the perfect counterpoint to his brother’s earnest demeanor, and his wit kept the press stocked with sound bites like, “I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer."

In 1979, the Associated Press described Billy as a “professional redneck,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment of Billy’s activities in the early years of his brother’s presidency. He basically traveled the country drinking beer, making event appearances, and cashing checks. His most notable project, though, has to be the beer that bore his name.

The Birth of Billy Beer

Image credit: Flickr user Fred Abercrombie

As Billy Carter’s odd, beer-swilling star was rising, the venerable Falls City Brewing Company’s fortunes were fading. Louisville-based Falls City had enjoyed a good deal of success as a regional brewer since its 1905 founding, and the company even managed to prosper during Prohibition by making near beer and soft drinks. By 1977, though, the small brewer was having trouble competing with national brands, and its most recent attempt to win back some market share, a light-bodied beer called Drummond Bros., hadn’t buoyed the company’s prospects much.

Falls City didn’t want to simply fade into oblivion, so in 1977 the company approached the country’s most visible drunken redneck about forming a partnership. Never one to turn down free beer or an easy buck, Billy agreed to market his own brand of beer.

The exact terms of the partnership weren't clear, but various sources reported that Carter received $50,000 a year to license his name and provide promotional services. Billy also got to pick the beer; Falls City brewed up a set of test batches and let him choose the one he thought was the tastiest. Carter had high expectations for the project and even joked, “Maybe I'll become the Colonel Sanders of beer.”

It seems funny now that Billy Beer is an infamous failed brand, but Falls City had a major problem to address before it started making Billy Beer. The brewers correctly surmised that a beer endorsed by the President’s black-sheep brother would become a national sensation, and it would be impossible for a regional brewery like Falls City to meet so much demand. To sidestep this problem, Falls City licensed the Billy Beer brand and formula to three other regional breweries: Minnesota’s Cold Spring, Texas’ Pearl Brewing, and New York’s West End. Billy Beer was set to get the entire nation quotably tipsy.

Billy-mania Begins

Billy Beer drew an enviable amount of national attention when it debuted in November 1977, and Jimmy Carter’s supporters and detractors alike rushed out to buy a six-pack of the novelty cans. The 12-packs even came emblazoned with a photo of Billy and his buddies enjoying frosty cans of the brew. Each can – the only format in which the beer was offered – bore Billy’s signature and the promise “I had this beer brewed just for me. It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot.”

This revelation might shock you, but Billy Carter – the same Billy who later registered as a foreign agent of the Libyan government and accepted a six-figure “loan” from Colonel Gaddafi – wasn’t being entirely honest about his beer’s smooth taste. Most contemporary drinkers felt it was apparent that Falls City had put more thought into the marketing plan than the brew itself, and even Billy would later jokingly describe Billy Beer as the reason he quit drinking.

Of course, even if the beer had been nectar, the brand had another major hurdle to clear: Billy Carter. Hiring a highly quotable, frequently drunk attention hound turned out to be a questionable decision for Falls City. Billy had a habit of attending promotional events for his beer and parroting the company line about how delicious he thought it was, only to later get sloshed and admit to reporters that he still drank Pabst Blue Ribbon at home. That’s about the best summary of Billy Beer that we can find; it was so noxious that not even Billy Carter would drink it.

Falls City had survived Prohibition, but it couldn’t survive Billy Beer. The brewers quickly learned that it’s hard to make a lasting profit on a product that tastes so bad nobody wants to buy it a second time. In October 1978, Falls City announced that it was closing its doors after less than a year of cranking out the first brother’s suds. The brewery’s president said that the fortunes of Billy Beer "sank with the popularity of the President," but many media sources, including Time, pinpointed the beer’s crummy quality as the true reason for its downfall.

Wisconsin’s G. Heileman Brewing Company acquired Falls City’s non-Billy brands and continued to bottle them at other breweries. Reynolds Metals bought 9 million unfilled Billy Beer cans and melted them down, and Billy Carter left the beer industry.

Billy Hits the Secondary Market

This unceremonious death should have been the end of Billy Beer, but the short-lived fad caught a second wind in the early '80s. What caused Billy’s resurgence? Americans became thoroughly convinced that their unopened cans were 12-ounce gold mines.

At some point in 1981, classified ads began popping up in newspapers around the country offering $1,000 for any unopened sixers of Billy Beer. Anyone who was sitting on some unopened Billy Beer became ecstatic about turning horrid beer into big money. A week or two later, the same papers would run classified ads from someone who wanted to sell their Billy Beer for a mere $200 a sixer, a discount of 80-percent off of its “true” value!

This scam should have been fairly transparent, but it fooled a lot of people. Cans of Billy Beer became the booze-filled Beanie Babies of their day. By the time Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, people were convinced that their cans of crummy beer were more valuable than stock certificates. In December 1981, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor from a can collector who tried to explain that, no, these common cans weren’t precious commodities. He pegged the value of a can at somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Two weeks later, the Times ran a rebuttal letter that stridently decried the collector’s point and declared, “I wish to put the matter to rest by informing your readers that I was personally offered $600 for one unopened can.”

If that story is true, we hope the letter writer took the deal. As anyone who collected baseball cards in the '80s can tell you, Billy Beer perfectly fit the mold for a worthless collectible. It was made in giant quantities. Hordes of people had speculatively saved some. It had no intrinsic value. Rumors of the beer’s value persisted throughout the decade, though, and sellers found suckers, er, customers from time to time. In 1988 the Times even reported on a West Virginia couple who had bought a sealed case for a mere $2,000.

That poor couple probably wishes it had its money back. Although the “Billy Beer is valuable!” myth hasn’t totally died, the cans’ aren’t exactly demanding a king’s ransom on today’s collector’s market. A quick perusal of recent eBay auctions shows that an unopened can of Billy Beer tops out at around $10, while a six-pack might fetch $15-25. On the plus side, the beers probably don’t taste appreciably worse than they did in their 1978 heyday.

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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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presidents
Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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History
The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 14, 1912—105 years ago today—Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for another term. It was a tough race: Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent, and William Howard Taft, while unpopular, was the Republican incumbent. Roosevelt was running as a third-party Progressive, and in order to keep pace with his big-ticket rivals he had to work hard. By this point in the election season, he was giving 15 to 20 speeches per day, most of which stretched on for an hour or sometimes more. But this day, TR didn't feel too well. His throat was scratchy, he was tired, and so he planned a relatively quick stop.

What Roosevelt and his security team didn't know was that a man with a .38 caliber revolver had been trailing the campaign since they departed New Orleans. For a thousand miles, he rode quietly, just waiting to get his shot at the Colonel.

John Schrank was a Bavarian-born saloon-keeper from New York. He'd had some strange and troubling dreams in recent months, mostly about President McKinley, whose assassination resulted in Roosevelt's first term. In his dreams, Schrank said that President McKinley asked him to avenge his death and protect democracy from a three-term president. All Schrank had to do was kill Roosevelt before he could be reelected.

"BUT FORTUNATELY I HAD MY MANUSCRIPT"

Roosevelt stood in the seat of his automobile to wave at the crowds and Schrank, who was standing in the front row of the crowd, had his shot. He took aim: point-blank, right at Roosevelt’s head. Then three things happened at the same time. A bystander hit Schrank’s arm; Roosevelt’s security detail spotted the gun and leapt from the car; Schrank pulled the trigger. The shot landed squarely in Roosevelt’s chest just as Schrank was tackled and put in a headlock by the bodyguard. Roosevelt is said not to have noticed he was hit until he reached into his overcoat and felt the blood on his fingers.

But it turns out that Teddy’s long-winded speeches saved his life that day: The bullet traveled through a 50-page copy of his prepared speech and the steel eyeglasses case he carried in the same pocket. The bullet was slowed enough not to reach his lung or heart, which Teddy deduced from the absence of blood when he spoke or coughed. He refused to go to a hospital and insisted on giving his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he began. He spoke for at least 55 more minutes (though some estimates say 90), still wearing his blood-soaked shirt. (You can read a stenographer’s report of his speech here.)

The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book.
The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book, which—along with the eyeglasses case and the shirt TR was wearing—can be seen at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.
Erin McCarthy

Roosevelt would spend the next eight days in the hospital. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall and removing it was deemed too unsafe. The wound healed and he never reported trouble from the injury again. Despite having lived through his assassination attempt, the presidency would not be Teddy’s again: Woodrow Wilson’s 41 percent of the vote meant the office would be his, though Roosevelt did beat out incumbent Taft, marking the only time a sitting president has come in third place in a reelection bid.

Schrank, in the meantime, was apprehended immediately. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, and died of pneumonia in 1943.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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