Billy Beer first came on the scene in 1977. It garners its name from the late Billy Carter (1937-1988), the younger, hard-drinking brother of then-President Jimmy Carter. Billy Beer was on the scene briefly, but has acquired its own unique place in urban legend and collectible breweriana circles.
Billy Carter: President Jimmy Carter's Brother
Former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States in November 1976, narrowly defeating Republican incumbent Gerald R. Ford. With the election of Carter – who hailed from the small town of Plains, Georgia – the media/public focus became even more intense on Carter's family. That attention eventually led to the President's younger brother, William Alton "Billy" Carter III, one of the more colorful members of the prez's brood.
An ex-marine who served four years in the Corps, Billy worked in the family peanut business and also went on to famously operate a service station in Plains, Georgia. Billy, who with wife Sybil (Spires) Carter had six children, first vaulted into the spotlight during his brother's 1976 presidential campaign. Known as a hard-drinking, beer-guzzling good ol' Southern boy, Billy often "campaigned" in bars and taverns, putting in the good word for his brother, the Democratic nominee for President. In one famous incident an obviously intoxicated Billy unzipped his fly and urinated on an airport runway with the press duly recording his faux pas. Well, when you have to go, you have to go...
Billy Carter also made trouble for his brother the President, famously visiting Libya on three separate occasions in 1978-79. He was reportedly given a loan of $220,000 by the Muammar Gaddafi regime, with former renegade CIA officer Edwin P. Wilson later alleging that Billy received $2 million from Libya. Billy's behavior eventually led to President Carter declaring that his brother's foreign activities in no way influenced his thinking or American policy.
Billy Carter, who later quit drinking and did a stint at the Betty Ford Center for treatment of his alcoholism, died of pancreatic cancer at age 51 in Plains, Georgia, on September 25, 1988.
Billy Carter on the cover of Time magazine, August 4, 1980 - Time-Life, Inc.
Billy Beer Debuts in 1977
Carter fever was at a pitch in 1977, with even Hollywood getting into the act with an ABC sitcom titled Carter Country (1977-79) starring Victor French as Roy Mobey, the police chief of the fictional southern town of Clinton Corners. In July of 1977, good ol' boy Billy Carter once again made headlines, this time as the official spokesman for a new brand of suds called Billy Beer.
Although a confirmed Pabst Blue Ribbon man, Billy Carter willingly lent his name to Billy Beer for the good times, publicity and a share of the profits – $50,000 a year according to one source. The blue and orange aluminum can said it all: "Brewed expressly for and with the personal approval of one of America's all-time great beer drinkers – Billy Carter. I had this beer brewed up just for me. I think it's the best I ever tasted. And I've tasted a lot. I think you'll like it, too."
Billy Beer was made by four different brewers: Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, Kentucky; West End Brewing Company of Utica, New York; Pearl Brewing Company of San Antonio, Texas; Cold Spring Brewing Company, Cold Spring, Minnesota. A fairly good seller in the beginning, Billy Beer was discontinued in 1978 because of declining sales.
Billy Beer: Collectible Cans
Billy Beer's famous novelty run from 1977 to 1978 produced some two billion beer cans by one estimate, with some nine million unfilled Billy Beer cans melted down by Reynolds Metals for the aluminum scrap value. When Billy Beer ceased production in the late 1970s, America was awash in Billy Beer cans. Many people, sensing a great collectible down the road, hoarded unopened cans, six-packs and entire cases, stashing them in basements, garages and attics for some future bonanza.
Billy Beer really came to the forefront as a collectible in the early 1980s when a man took out ads in a Chicago newspaper offering unopened Billy Beer six-packs for sale. The price: $1,000. The fast-buck entrepreneur then ran additional ads, offering his six-packs for the "bargain rate" of only $200. That apparently opened the floodgates, as offers for Billy Beer saturated newspapers and collectible publications, with everyone and their brother hell-bent on cashing in on their Billy Beer cans at some outrageous price.
Billy Beer can from Falls City Brewing Company 1977 - falstaffbrewing.com
Billy Beer Cans: Rarity & Values
Billy Beer cans – whether opened or unopened – are not rare by any means. They're your basic novelty beer cans, produced and saved in great quantity with supply far outstripping demand. That, however, doesn't mean that they don't possess any value. A collector in need of a Billy Beer can today may pay anywhere from 25 cents to $10 for a specimen, depending on condition.
Occasionally at auction, Billy Beer cans have been known to bring out the beast in some bidders who still subscribe to the urban legend that they're truly bidding on something rare. In a famous November 20, 2010, episode of the Discovery Channel's Auction Kings, a seller named Robert brought in an unopened case of Billy Beer at Gallery 63, located just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, hoping to get enough money to take his wife out for dinner. Owner Paul Brown brought in a beweriana expert, who pronounced the case "worthless," claiming that the only value it held was in the recyclable aluminum. The gallery's resident picker Jon Hammond begged to differ, however, betting office manager Cindy Shook that the unopened case would sell for at least $100. Come auction day the case of Billy Beer in its original corrugated box attracted spirited bidding, with a man sporting a British accent who owned ten restaurants in Atlanta taking home the unopened case for $100, which he considered a bargain and probably a tax write-off as well. Hammond won the bet: a free dinner courtesy of doubting Thomas Shook.
According to many beer drinkers of the era, Billy Beer wasn't a particularly good brew. In fact, Billy Carter himself – the beer's supposed number one fan – often admitted to reporters that he still drank Pabst Blue Ribbon behind closed doors. Jimmy Carter later joked that Billy Beer was the principal reason his famous brother gave up drinking.
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Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.