Anheuser-Busch InBev is reaching back nearly 100 years in hopes of giving its struggling Budweiser brand a boost. A limited-edition brew called 1933 Repeal Reserve Amber Lager hits shelves today, claiming inspiration from a recipe used before Prohibition began in 1920.
Pre-prohibition style beers have been on the scene for years, made mostly by craft brewers that have sought to recreate the formulas of the bygone era. Of course, the craft brewers of today were not around before Prohibition hit. But Anheuser-Busch, which was acquired by InBev in 2008, has been around since 1852, giving the brewer a link to recipes its founders once used. The new brew is based on an amber lager Adolphus Busch sold in the St. Louis area before Prohibition arrived in 1920, according to the brewer. It packs a bigger punch than regular Bud—6.1 percent alcohol-by-volume versus 5 percent—and is described as having a "light, hoppy aroma and a rich caramel-malt taste."
The marketing and packaging includes plenty of nostalgic nods, including a shorter bottle known as a "stubby." In partnership with Lyft, the brewer on Wednesday will offer New Yorkers rides in five Bud-branded cars in Manhattan meant to resemble 1930s-era vehicles. The special rides, available on a first-come-first-serve basis between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. for people who sign up at Lyft's website, will include tours of landmarks and neighborhoods with links to Prohibition. A TV ad by VaynerMedia shows the brew being poured in a modern-day speakeasy.
The limited run is timed to with the holidays and the Dec. 5 anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, which came to an end on that date in 1933 when Utah became the 36th state to approve the 21st Amendment.
The campaign comes as Bud continues to struggle. Sales in the U.S. were down 6.6 percent in the nine months ending Sept. 30, according to Nielsen data cited by Beer Marketer's Insights. All big brands are down, but Bud's decline was worse than Bud Light (-5.7%), Coors Light (-3.4%), and Miller Lite (-1.6%). Bud is doing much better globally, including in China, where the brand is surging.
In the U.S., "I think they are just searching for answers," says Beer Marketer's publisher Benj Steinman, noting that Bud—once the largest brew in the U.S.—has been falling for some 30 years. He suggested the true aim of the limited-edition brew is to improve the image of the main Bud brand. "They are going for a halo effect and the fact that it is a legacy recipe ostensibly will lend it some authenticity or gravitas," he says.
Indeed, Bud has plenty of historical levers to pull. Anheuser-Busch persevered during Prohibition by selling non-alcoholic products. Clydesdales, which remain a marketing symbol for the brewer today, first became associated with A-B after August Busch Jr. gave his dad some of the horses to celebrate the end of Prohibition, according to the brewer. Clydesdales were used in 1933 to deliver beer to the White House.
AB InBev is not the first big brewer to give Prohibition-themed marketing a try. MillerCoors in 2013 ran a Repeal Day campaign for its Batch 19 brand that was crafted from a pre-Prohibition recipe. But the brew was later discontinued. A MillerCoors spokeswoman said the brewer is "focusing on other priorities."