A Brief History of Billy Beer

Peter Keegan, Keystone/Getty Images
Peter Keegan, Keystone/Getty Images

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

billy beer

cactuscans, Ebay

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

Jimmy Carter and Billy Carter
US National Archives bot, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

More or Less: U.S. Presidents Edition

10 Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Carter

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Bridging the gap between the often-maligned Gerald Ford and the drug-busting Ronald Reagan was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and one of the most esteemed humanitarians ever to hold the office. At the age of 95, Carter—who was born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924—is also the oldest living former president.

While a near-century-long life is hard to summarize, we’ve assembled a few things that may surprise you about one of our most fondly-remembered elected officials.

1. Jimmy Carter did not grow up in the lap of luxury.

Born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter’s early years didn’t involve a lot of the rapid technological progressions that were taking place around the country. His family relocated to Archery, Georgia—a town that relied chiefly on mule-drawn wagons for transportation—when Carter was 4 years old. Indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. To pass time, Carter typically listened to entertainment shows on a battery-operated radio with his father.

2. Jimmy Carter drew criticism for rejecting racist beliefs.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter served in the military, during which time he married and had three sons. (A fourth child, daughter Amy, was born in 1967.) After his father died in 1953, Carter was honorably discharged and settled on the family peanut farm in Plains, where he found that the South’s deeply-rooted racial biases were in direct conflict with his own progressive views of integration. When Plains residents assembled a “White Citizens’ Council” to combat anti-discrimination laws, Carter refused membership. Soon, signs were pasted on his front door full of racist remarks. But Carter held to his views: By the 1960s, voters were ready to embrace a politician without biases, and Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Unfortunately, Carter found that his liberal views could only take him so far in Georgia. When he ran for state governor in 1970, he backed off on many of his previously-publicized views on racial equality, leading some to declare him bigoted. Once in office, however, Carter restored many of his endorsements to end segregation.

3. Jimmy Carter caused quite a story by doing an interview with Playboy.

Few, if any, presidential candidates have attempted to stir up support by submitting to an intensive interview in the pages of Playboy, but Carter’s 1976 bid was an exception. Just weeks before he won the election, Carter admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart” many times and that he “looked on a lot of women with lust.”

4. Jimmy Carter never liked the pageantry of the presidency.

When Carter entered the office of the presidency in 1977, he made it clear that he considered himself no more elevated in status than his voters simply because of political power. He sold the presidential yacht, thinking it a symbol of excess; he also carried his own briefcase and banned workers from playing “Hail to the Chief” during appearances.

5. Jimmy Carter may have seen a UFO.

Prior to taking office, Carter filed an interesting report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. In 1969, Carter wrote, he spotted a strange aircraft in the sky over Leary, Georgia. It appeared to hover 30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing. Carter promised to release every sealed document the government had collected about UFOs if elected, but later walked back on the promise, citing national security concerns.

6. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White House.

Carter spent considerable time and effort promoting renewable energy sources as the world struggled with an ongoing fuel crisis. To demonstrate his commitment, Carter ordered that solar panels be installed on White House grounds in 1979, decades before such a practice became commonplace. The panels were used to heat water on the property. Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986 during a roof renovation.

7. Jimmy Carter was a movie buff who watched more than 400 films while in office.

Carter was a movie buff who, as president, enjoyed early access to many films—and he averaged a couple of movies a week while in office. Among those viewed: 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and 1980’s Caddyshack. Carter also screened 1977’s Star Wars with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

8. Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

After Soviet forces failed to heed Carter’s mandate to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, Carter committed to a radical step: He prevented American athletes from competing in the 1980 Games in Moscow, the first time the nation had failed to appear in the competition. Canada, West Germany, Japan, and around 50 other countries followed Carter’s lead. When the Games moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was the Soviet Union's turn to refuse to appear.

9. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit.

Before running for (and losing) re-election in 1980, Carter decided to take a little time for himself and go fishing near his home in Plains. While in his boat, a wild rabbit that was being chased by hounds jumped into the water and swam toward the boat. Carter shooed the animal away with a paddle. Although it was a minor incident, a photo snapped of Carter flailing at the bunny and numerous editorial cartoons gave some voters the perception he was a less-than-ideal adversary for the powerful Soviet Union and may have led to an image of Carter as ineffectual.

10. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

After decades of philanthropic work, including a longstanding association with Habitat for Humanity, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. It was actually a quarter-century overdue: The Nobel committee wanted to award him the prize in 1978 after he helped broker peace talks between Israel and Egypt, but no one had nominated him before the official deadline had closed.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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