I blog primarily over at "geosciblog" (http://geosciblog.blogspot.com), I am doing this one for fun. It is inspired by 30+ years of beer can collecting and having tried more than 3,000 different American beers during that time. “. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton

Saturday, July 23, 2005

What was Billy Beer?

I am sure most of you have at one time or another seen a picture of a Billy Beer can or have seen want ads wanting to sell them for what seemed like ridiculous prices. Well, you are right about the ridiculous prices.

President Carter's brother Billy was known to enjoy Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Someone came up with the marketing idea to have the first brother honored with his own beer. The first brewery to brew Billy Beer was the Falls City Brewing Co. of Louisville, Kentucky. Billy made his choice of recipes and as expected, he chose one similar to PBR.

The beer sold well when it first hit the market, carried largely by the publicity. Three other breweries, West End Brewing of Utica, NY (now Matts/Saranac); Cold Spring Brewing Co., of Cold Spring, MN; and Pearl Brewing Co., of San Antonio, TX produced Billy Beer in cans. Between the four breweries, including all minor can variations, there are about 7 or 8 varieties of Billy Beer cans.

The mistaken idea for the cans actually having any value came from a news report that followed the closure of Falls City Brewing Co. in 1978. When Falls City Brewing Co. closed, G. Heileman Brewing Co. of LaCrosse, WI bought the Falls City and Drummond Brothers beer labels (recipes) and unused cans from the Louisville brewery, but did not buy the unused Billy Beer cans. The unused Billy cans were recycled, but by then, thousands of cases had been sold and collectors had squirreled away thousands more than collectors would ever want, including full cans. But someone reasoned that because so many had been recycled, that increased their value.

It took a few years for the craze to go away and you still see inquiries and occasional six packs for sale. If you ever want one for a conservation piece, don't pay more than $1 or $2 for one, even if full. Actually, other Billy items, e.g., belt buckles, t-shirts, signs, etc. are more somewhat more rare than the cans. Returnable bottle labels were printed for Billy Beer, but I don't know if the bottles were ever filled at the Falls City brewery.

FYI, full cans are only of extra value to full can collectors. Canned beers do not age well and generally become stale within a few months. Bottled, higher-gravity ales and spiced ales may age for a few months to years (decades in a few rare cases), depending on a number of different factors, so if a Billy can is full, it has no extra value.
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