On tour I talk about our founding fathers love of drinking. George Washington brewed beer as a young man and later he and Martha full-tilt into the distilling business at Mt. Vernon. Thomas Jefferson and his household went through 400 bottles of wine a year. Sam Adams was Sam Adams. I used to say that James Madison proposed a US National Brewery, which would have created the cabinet post of Brew Master General. Sadly, the historians at Montpelier have taken that one away from me! However, it had the ring of truth because Madison did express hope that brewers would “strike deep root in every state in the union.”
Modern leaders have certainly come 180 since the hard-drinking 1700’s. In our day and age it’s political suicide to be seen as a drinker. Things were not looking like they were headed anywhere different in 1977 when a churchy-peanut farmer became our 39th President. Luckily, Jimmy Carter had a younger brother.
"I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer." William Alton "Billy" Carter once remarked to a reporter. When asked about his family, he famously replied "My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight. 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." Lines like this endeared him to the public, and the image of the President’s brother as a lovable, drunken redneck solidified.
To capitalize on his fame, Falls City Brewing Company launched Billy Beer in July, 1977. The side of the can read “Brewed expressly for and with the personal approval of one of AMERICA's all-time Great Beer Drinkers—Billy Carter.” The reverse contained a “personal” missive from Billy- “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 hit the talk-show circuit promoting his brand. “Maybe I'll become the Colonel Sanders of beer” he quipped.
Sales declined precipitously when the novelty factor wore off; the taste of the beer proved to be extremely unpopular. Production of the beer ceased scarcely a year later in Oct, 1978. An internet search for worse beers ever made will almost always have Billy Beer on the list. Billy was no fan himself of his supposedly hand-picked beer; he got drunk and admitted to reporters that when at home he drank Pabst. In a story reminiscent of all those unsold ET Atari cartridges, a metal company bought 9 million cans of unfilled Billy Beer cans to melt them down. Today, there is a nostalgia factor for the surviving beer and related memorabilia. However, they are at best minor collectibles.
Billy maintained a sense humor about the debacle stating that Billy Beer was the reason he quit drinking. I’m a firm believer that Madison should have made that proposal, and Congress should have authorized it. What a missed opportunity- just think of what could have Billy Carter have done with the post of Brewmaster General?
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.