“It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve tasted a lot,” says Billy Carter on the box. One could say it was hyperbole but those who tasted Billy Beer, would probably say it was dementia.
In 1977, the Falls City Brewing Company launched production of Billy Beer, named after President Jimmy Carter’s younger brother. What can you say about Billy Carter? Well, what can’t you say?
Where Jimmy Carter was known as a straight-laced politician, Billy Carter perfected the image of a good ol’ boy. During President Carter’s campaign in 1976, brother Billy admitted to a contingent of the press: “Yes, I’m a real southern boy. I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer.”
Billy was just getting warmed up. “My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight,” he said. “My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I’m the only sane one in the family.”
After the election of his brother, the frequently soused Billy got involved in Billy Beer, which was less about product and more about marketing.
Billy Beer was a whole mess of trouble from the beginning. The beer was conceived as a gimmick to capitalize on President Jimmy Carter’s popularity. Its recipe was supposedly hand-picked by Billy Carter, then a gas-station owner in Georgia. (This is apocryphal, but it’s said that in interviews, a slightly swervy Billy Carter wasn’t afraid to admit that he had probably been drunk when he picked the recipe.)
The marketing brought a lot of attention to the beer, which was actually a bad thing for everyone involved. Falls City couldn’t meet production goals and contracted brewing Billy out to other breweries. Among them was Utica, N.Y.’s F.X. Matt (then known as West End Brewing) as well as to Cold Spring and Pearl Brewing. F.X. Matt is the fourth-oldest brewery in the U.S. Today it produces Sarnac and contract brews for the Brooklyn Brewery, among others.
Contract brewing is one thing. The real problems arose when beer drinkers began to taste the stuff. My father described its taste as “yeasty.” Ken Carmen at Professor Good Ales paints a vivid description of Billy Beer. “There wasn’t a lot of body but, for the time, the hopping was interesting. I would assume Cascade with a twist at the end: Mt. Hood, or perhaps some Noble hop to make it a bit ‘spicy,’ ” he writes.
Others described Billy Beer as being weaker swill than the usual light-bodied American swill being brewed at the time. Billy Carter’s favorite beer was Pabst Blue Ribbon, if that gives you any indication of what Billy Beer might have been aiming at.
Billy Beer was produced in the millions but saw dismal sales figures. After production stopped, the beer became something of a collectible. In the late ’70s, someone took out an ads in a Chicago paper offering to sell unopened cans of Billy for $1,000 a sixer. Shortly thereafter, the same seller began to offer the cans at the bargain-basement price of $200 per six pack. What a deal! (For more on the history of this scam, check out Rusty Cans.)
Shortly after the Billy Beer debacle, Falls City was sold off to the Geo. Wiedmann Brewing Company. Billy Carter was in even worse shape.
Not one to let one bad business venture keep him from diving into another, Billy Carter soon joined a delegation of businessmen from Georgia who wanted to help open up the oil trade with Libya. (Keep in mind, Billy’s connection to the oil market was in running a gas station.) Carter accepted $220,000 as part of a loan from the Libyan government to help get the process started.
A reporter asked Billy why he was involved with the Libyans and got more than he expected in return and possibly also a non-answer to his question. Billy sounded off: “The only thing I can say is there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews,” adding that the “Jewish media [tore] up the Arab countries full-time.”
He even went on to defend Libya against allegations of state-sponsored terrorism. A “heap of governments support terrorists and [Libya] at least admitted it,” he said.
Billy Carter was eventually called before the U.S. Senate to explain why he was representing the interests of a foreign country. During the hearing, Billy admitted that he probably “had been invited [to Libya] because [he] was the brother of the President.” (The quote comes from a Time Magazine story published in 1980 about Billy Carter.)
President Carter did his best to distance the White House from Billy, but the damage had been done, and Jimmy’s presidency was already veering off the road.
Poor ol’ Billy Carter struggled with alcoholism for the remainder of his life. He died in 1988 from pancreatic cancer. Attempts to turn his former gas station into a national monument have yet to bear fruit.
Today cans of Billy Beer go for a few dollars on eBay. I bought a can at auction for less than the cost of shipping. Originally, I intended to crack it open and drink it. Dumb idea? Yes, but it seemed appropriate. And then the package arrived.
It was August, but still, I hadn’t expected the unopened can of Billy to be as warm as it was. The shipper had wrapped it in bubble wrap but hadn’t used enough to keep it from moving around in the box. So, there I was with a warm can of beer in a shaky box – and that was just one eventful week in its thirty-three years on earth. There was no way I was going to crack open this can of ancient swill.
If you want to cellar beer, you’re better off going for a high-ABV beer and keeping it in a dark place where the temperature remains constant and cool. Billy Beer is not that. It is the Bizarro Superman of beer. In its day, Billy Beer was brewed with cheap ingredients and tasted poorly when it was fresh – it probably tastes like a nightmare today.
But the temptation persists. Billy Beer could have been something spectacular. As Billy once said, “Maybe I’ll become the Colonel Sanders of beer.”