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.
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 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.
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.