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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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8 Surprising Facts About the Presidential Yacht
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If you consider a boat to be a suboptimal way of ferrying the President of the United States, you’re not alone. No sitting president has used one for official travel purposes since 1977, when the USS Sequoia was decommissioned. But for a good chunk of the 20th century, the POTUS was able to jump on a yacht and set sail for both recreational and government business, getting a change of scenery without having to hop on a plane. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about this unique—and extinct—political retreat.

1. THE SEQUOIA WASN’T THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL YACHT.

The idea of toting presidents in a floating White House for social engagements dates back to 1893, when the USS Dolphin flew the presidential flag for Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt anointed the USS Mayflower, a luxury steam yacht, that was occupied by three successive presidents until it was decommissioned in 1929. Two other ships were in service before the Sequoia was selected in 1933.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A DECOY SHIP DURING PROHIBITION.

The Sequoia wasn’t custom-built for presidential purposes. Constructed in 1925, the 104-foot-long vessel was originally owned by a Texas oilman and purchased by the U.S. government in 1931. It was used as a decoy ship to intercede rum runners during Prohibition before being rehomed with the U.S. Navy. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed fishing off the ship—in Hoover’s case, so much so that he put a picture of it on the White House’s official 1932 Christmas card. Hoover soon declared it the official presidential yacht in 1933.

3. EACH PRESIDENT CUSTOMIZED IT.

The Sequoia underwent several minor facelifts as each new sitting president decided they wanted a custom yacht experience. Lyndon B. Johnson was so tall that he had to have the shower on board extended so he could bathe comfortably; John F. Kennedy had a king-sized bed installed. An elevator was added to make it wheelchair-accessible for Franklin Roosevelt; Johnson later ripped out the lift and used the space for a wet bar.

4. NIXON LOVED THE BOAT.

Of all the presidents to board the Sequoia, Richard Nixon did so with the greatest frequency and zeal. He reportedly stepped on the ship at least 88 times, sailing to Mount Vernon and insisting staff salute Washington’s tomb. Later, when Watergate began to consume most of his final days in office, he insisted an anti-bug electronic shield be installed in case the ship was being tapped for sound. Nixon also made the decision to resign while on board, mournfully playing “God Bless America” on the piano that Truman had installed.

5. JFK HAD HIS LAST BIRTHDAY PARTY THERE.

On what turned out to be his last birthday, John F. Kennedy devoted the night of May 29, 1963 to a celebration on the Sequoia. Just 24 guests were invited, and only three Secret Service members were on board—the rest populated security boats trailing behind.

6. ELVIS BOUGHT ONE.

For Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USS Potomac was his ship of choice: The 165-foot-long ship was big enough to accommodate more Secret Service staff and was in use from 1936 to 1945. After passing through other hands, Elvis Presley decided he wanted to make sure the ship was preserved and bought it at auction in 1964 for $55,000. The King immediately donated it to Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where it continued to change hands until being designated a National Historical Landmark in 1987.

7. JIMMY CARTER SOLD IT OFF.

By 1977, the Sequoia had been in service for over four decades, and the cost to maintain it was significant: $800,000 a year. Because Jimmy Carter had made campaign promises to cut extraneous expenses, he had little choice but to trim the fat by decommissioning the yacht. The Sequoia was sold off for $236,000. In 1999, a collector of presidential memorabilia bought it for nearly $2 million and began renting it out to visitors for $10,000.

8. IT BECAME FULL OF RACCOON POOP.

Once the Sequoia entered the private sector, its seaworthiness became a very costly pursuit. In 2016, a judge ruled that FE Partners, which restores historic ships, could have the vessel free of charge after it was declared to be rotting and infested with raccoons while idling in a Virginia shipyard: The animals reportedly pooped on presidential carpets. The group hopes to restore the Sequoia and have it back on the water sometime in the next few years.

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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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