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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Ronald Reagan

Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

As the 40th president of the United States, actor and politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) led America’s charge through the neon-lit 1980s, navigating tense relations with the Soviet Union and tackling a highly controversial war on drugs. Though not everyone agreed with his politics, many consider him to be among the most charismatic leaders in the country’s history. If you’re thin on “Gipper” trivia, take a look at some facts about his life, his time in office, and how a chimpanzee nearly did him in.

1. HIS DAD CALLED HIM “DUTCH.”

Ronald Reagan in a publicity shot during his acting days
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan had several nicknames throughout his life, but his first was given to him by his father "Jack" Reagan shortly after he was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. Marveling at his son’s heft, Jack referred to the baby as a "fat little Dutchman,” a nickname strengthened by the “Dutch boy” haircuts he received as a child. According to Reagan’s autobiography, when he was older he began asking people to call him Dutch because he didn’t feel “'Ronald' was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy.”

2. HIS ACTING RESUME WAS LONG.

As a sports broadcaster, Reagan primarily covered Chicago Cubs games. Because the team held their spring training in southern California, Reagan was able to convince the broadcaster to let him use the training as a vacation away from Iowa’s winters. In 1937, on one of these trips, Reagan met up with Joy Hodges, a singer he knew from back home who went to Hollywood. She put him in touch with a talent agent who called up a casting director.

He got a screen test and scored a contract with Warner Bros. (At the time, studios were still in the business of signing exclusivity deals with actors, doling them out to whatever parts needed filling in their productions.) Reagan acted in over 50 movies over the next three decades, including Knute Rockne, All American, where he played real-life college football player George “Gipper” Gipp. The part gave him his “Gipper” nickname.

3. STILL, HE WAS UPSET ABOUT NEVER WINNING AN OSCAR.

President Ronald Reagan sits behind his desk in the Oval Office
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

Most of Reagan’s films were not exactly award contenders, but that didn’t stop the president from feeling like he was owed a little consideration from the Academy. Reagan aide Mark Weinberg wrote in his 2018 memoir, Movie Nights with the Reagans, that during his time in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief expressed annoyance that no one from his former profession acknowledged his evolution from performer to world leader with an honorary award. “You would think that after what I’ve done—being the only one from that profession to do so—they would commemorate it in some way,” he reportedly told Weinberg in the 1980s. “But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.”

Reagan did have one flirtation with the Oscars. On March 30, 1981, he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. The award ceremony, scheduled to take place that day, was postponed by 24 hours out of respect for the president. (Reagan made a full recovery.)

4. HE WAS NEARLY KILLED BY A CHIMP.

Ronald Reagan poses with Peggy the chimpanzee
Washington/AFP/Getty Images

The nadir of Reagan’s acting career may have been 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, in which the future leader of the free world tries to corral a mischievous chimpanzee. While shooting a scene with Peggy, the chimp portraying Bonzo, the animal became intrigued by Reagan's tie and began pulling on it like a rope. Refusing to let go, she compressed the knot into something no bigger than Reagan’s fingernail. After finally being released by his animal assailant, Reagan was tended to by crew members who had to cut the tie off his neck.

5. HE WAS AN FBI INFORMANT.

Ronald Reagan poses with first wife Jane Wyman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1940s, Reagan—then still an actor, but becoming increasingly involved in politics—became a real-life FBI informant. Both Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman tipped off the Bureau to suspected Communist activity in Hollywood. (His code name was T-10.) Reagan apparently had some misgivings about his actions, fearing Hollywood was using too heavy a hand in persecuting suspected red sympathizers. He once asked an agent, "Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?”

6. HE WAS AN AVID FAN OF WRITING LETTERS.

Ronald Reagan makes an address from behind his desk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan carved out time in his day to both read and answer letters, and he wasn’t discriminating about where they came from. A seventh-grader once wrote to the president asking for federal assistance because his mother declared his bedroom a disaster area. Tickled by the kid’s sense of humor, Reagan responded and suggested he clean the room. In 1984, Reagan wrote a letter of support to entertainer Michael Jackson, who had been badly burned during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial: “You've gained quite a number of fans along the road since ‘I Want You Back’ and Nancy and I are among them.”

7. HE GOT COMPLEMENTARY JELLY BEANS FOR YEARS.

Ronald Reagan shares a laugh with Bill Clinton
Paul Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan first began snacking on jelly beans in 1966 after he gave up pipe smoking. Goelitz Candy, which made his preferred jelly bean, sent him shipments while Reagan was holding office as governor of California from 1967 to 1975. After debuting the Jelly Belly line in the '60s, the company continued to ship their goods to the White House during all eight years of Reagan’s presidency. They even received permission to issue jelly bean jars with the official presidential seal to be given out at functions.

8. HE HELPED DE-STIGMATIZE HEARING AIDS.

Ronald Reagan addresses a crowd from behind a podium
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1983, Reagan admitted he relied on use of a hearing aid in order to address age-related hearing loss. Previously, hearing aids had been stigmatized in the U.S. as representing a feeble constitution. After Reagan’s announcement, sales of hearing aid equipment soared. Starkey Laboratories, which made the president’s device, quadrupled its sales in the months following the publicity.

9. THERE HAVE BEEN AT LEAST 10 STATUES ERECTED IN HIS HONOR.

A statue erected in Ronald Reagan's honor
Ben Stansall, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois has no shortage of tributes to their most famous resident. A statue of Reagan stands near his boyhood home, while a second—this one depicting Reagan on horseback—is near Rock River. Reagan has also had statues erected in his honor at the California Capitol (with an exact replica at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley), at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, and in Newport Beach. There are two in Budapest, one in London, and one in Warsaw. The largest to date—a 10-foot-tall monument of Reagan saluting—stands in Covington, Louisiana. Yet another is planned near Lowell Park in Dixon, where Reagan reportedly saved 77 lives while serving as a lifeguard there for seven summers. A local joke has it that some of them were women who faked distress in order to get his attention.

10. WILL FERRELL UPSET HIS FAMILY.

Actor Will Ferrell is photographed at a public appearance
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

Following Reagan’s death in 2004 from pneumonia, the Reagan estate was quick to cut down any suggestion that his longtime struggle with Alzheimer’s disease affected his role while in office. In 2016, his children, Michael Reagan and Patti Davis, chastised actor Will Ferrell for considering a comedy titled Reagan in which he would play a neurologically-afflicted president whose behavior leads to “alternative” takes on world history. The Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement it was “appalled” by the idea. Ferrell quickly distanced himself from the film, which has yet to be made.

11 Historical Figures Who Were Really Bad At Spelling

iStock
iStock

Do you struggle with spelling bees? Do you always seem to get “lose” and “loose” mixed up? Would you recoil in terror if spell-check ever stopped working? Fear not: You're in good company. From Nobel Prize winners to the authors of great literary works, the inability to spell correctly has plagued some of history's most influential people. Here are 11 of the most famous.

1. JANE AUSTEN

Luckily, the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice was always fortunate enough to find editors who could weed out her various alphabetical mishaps. An early work, written when Austen was 14, was called Love and Freindship.

2. GEORGE WASHINGTON

According to Richard Lederer in his book More Anguished English, the man who would become the first American president wrote “we find our Necessaties are not such as to require an immediate transportation during the harvist" while complaining about a supply shortage during the Revolutionary War. The National Archives cautions, however, that for many letters from 1787 to 1790, the spelling issues are actually the result of his nephew copying them: “The mistaken impression shared by some that the mature GW was a bad speller and careless writer derives in large part from the defects of Lewis and other copyists.”

3. WINSTON CHURCHILL

Though he later became universally regarded as one of the greatest orators of all time, one of Churchill's early report cards said “Writing good, but so terribly slow—spelling about as bad as it well can be.”

4. AGATHA CHRISTIE

“Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me... [I was] an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.” It's incredible to think that this humbling statement came from the pen of one of the greatest mystery authors of all time: a woman who would later be celebrated as “The Queen of Crime." Later researchers have proposed that Christie could have been dysgraphic (and possibly dyslexic) [PDF].

5. ANDREW JACKSON

Examples of Old Hickory's seemingly innumerable botched spelling attempts include the continent of “Urope" and performing before a “larg audianc.” This ineptitude even went on to become a political punchline. His perennial political rival John Quincy Adams once denounced him as “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”

6. ALBERT EINSTEIN

In Einstein's defense, English was his second language. It's therefore easy to understand why spelling and grammatical errors in his works were a constant source of frustration to the physicist. “I cannot write in English,” he wrote to a friend, “because of the treacherous spelling.”

7. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Hemingway seemed to have difficulty with present participles, as “loving” became “loveing” and “moving” turned into “moveing” in his manuscripts. Whenever an editor complained of these bloopers, however, Hemingway would supposedly snap “Well, that's what you're hired to correct!”

8. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

The original draft of The Great Gatsby contained literally hundreds of spelling mistakes, some of which are still confounding editors. These include “yatch” (instead of “yacht”) and “apon” (instead of “upon”). One of his most famous gaffes, which occurs toward the end of the novel, inspires debate to this day.

9. OLIVIA CLEMENS

“Livy's” frequent compositional errors were an endless source of amusement to her husband Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. After receiving one of her letters, in which she miraculously made virtually no bloopers, he wrote “Oh you darling little speller!—you spell 'terrible' right, this time. And I won't have it—it is un-Livy-ish. Spell it wrong, next time, for I love everything that is like Livy. Maybe it is wrong for me to put a premium on bad spelling, but I can’t help it if it is. Somehow I love it in you—I have grown used to it, accustomed to expect it, & I honestly believe that if, all of a sudden, you fell to spelling every word right, I should feel a pain, as if something very dear to me had been mysteriously spirited away & lost to me. I am not poking fun at you, little sweetheart.” Despite Samuel's playful jabs, he relied upon his beloved wife as a “faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor” until her death in 1904.

10. WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

According to biographer David A. Ross, “Yeats' spelling, indeed, seems at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork.” Ouch. The great Irish poet and senator's idiosyncratic writing style resulted in some distinctively misspelled words cropping up throughout his works, such as “feal” instead of “feel." Despite this Achilles' heel, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

11. DAN QUAYLE

No list of famously bad spellers would be complete without mentioning the 44th Vice President's infamous “Potatoe Incident." The story goes that Quayle had the incorrect spelling on a cue card from the school—but perhaps ironically, Quayle may have ensured that everyone else spelled the word correctly. According to Ammon Shea, consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, potatoe was used in respectable publications right up to the Quayle incident, when, according to Shea, “they suddenly drop off or become used in an ironic way, referencing this incident. Quayle may have misspelled the word, but in doing so perhaps he taught the rest of us how to not make his error.”

This piece originally ran in 2016.

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