The Repeal Reserve Conundrum

Like many Los Angeles-area residents, I’ve been watching the World Series. It’s been fantastic so far, on par with the Fall Classics of 1960, 1975, and 1986. Since I’m tuning in live, this also means I’ve been viewing commercials as an unfortunate by-product. Most of them oscillate between bad and annoying, which is to be expected. One commercial, though, defies classification in this range every time it runs. It’s the ad for the Budweiser 1933 Repeal Reserve, and it confuses me.

If you’ve avoided the ad by fast-forwarding your DVR or just by not being a baseball fan, the limited-edition beer being promoted is a red lager supposedly based on a recipe the brewing giant hasn’t touched since 1933. It looks like a Bud but doesn’t. The bottle is stubbier, the label has a gold tint. Its ABV is roughly a percentage point higher than the flagship brand. It’s gotten surprisingly decent scores at aggregate sites like BeerAdvocate and Untapped – at least, decent by typical Budweiser standards – but whether it’s good or not isn’t the source of my befuddlement. That solely stems from trying figure out why Bud’s parent company AB InBev would put themselves in an unwinnable situation with their foes in the craft been community – even more unwinnable than normal.

Let’s ignore the fact that the beer is hovering around 3.5 to 4 stars in a typical 5-star rating system. Let’s say this beer flops hard. All the Bud haters (read: practically everyone you know who’s got craft product in their fridge) will point and laugh a smug, hearty chuckle because Budweiser is still bad regardless of what they attempt. They’ll probably also make fun of Bud for trying to put together a brew that suspiciously looks like a craft beer from one of those artisan breweries they’ve mocked through their ads for the last couple of years. At least, the artisan breweries InBev haven’t bought out.

Now let’s bring those scores back into the mix. Let’s say the score bumps up by a few tenths as more people try it out of curiosity or as a dare. The reaction from the craft beer folks wouldn’t necessarily be one that praises Bud for finally producing something for the serious beer drinker. A more realistic reaction – one that daresay is more apropos – would be to bitterly grouse about why Budweiser has tucked an actual good recipe into its archives and chosen to serve horrendous swill instead for over 80 years.

Budweiser appeared to address this latter issue in their press release, saying that Prohibition killed the chance to distribute a beer made with the recipe beyond the greater St. Louis area. Even if it’s true, it sounds like marketing hokum. Bud manufacturer Anheuser-Busch has been part of AB InBev since 2008, and AB InBev’s the most powerful force in the beer industry – powerful enough to acquire rival brewing titan SAB Miller last year with straight cash. It’s almost impossible to believe they didn’t have the wherewithal to produce this beer on a larger scale prior to 2017, which is why their explanation is probably going get under the skin of the dedicated beer geek in your life.

The existence of the Repeal Reserve also continues Budweiser’s/AB InBev’s unique love/hate relationship with craft beer. This is more than just a craft beer if you believe the company’s story, which frames the beer to sound like a home brew Adolphus Busch made for his friends. That’s about as far removed from Bud’s “macrobrew” movement as you can get. This is not a beer designed for the typical Bud drinker. It’s the type of brew their ads routinely poke fun at, theoretically aimed for a demographic their ads mock. This hasn’t stopped their derision of craft product and fans, either. They’re making fun of both in that Bud Light “dilly dilly” ad campaign that’s also running during the World Series, albeit in different breaks. If the Repeal Reserve was indeed meant to be an olive branch of sorts to craft beer fans, the Bud Light ad assures that branch is wrapped around a middle finger. They’re apparently hoping nobody notices. But craft beer fans aren’t that stupid. They’ll notice. The ones that watch baseball already have, because the company’s behavioral pattern makes it so easy to spot. For all the shade Bud throws at craft beer aficionados, their simultaneous gobbling up of craft breweries indicates they want a piece of their business badly. The dual ads are visual manifestations of what can be parsed into a weird business dichotomy.

Why would they do this? The only answer I can come up with is because they practically print their own beer money, and they can experiment like this without causing too much damage to their bottom line. Bud drinkers are gonna Bud drink, regardless of what the company attempts. This gives the company a sense of freedom the little guys don’t have. If it crashes and burns, they won’t care. They’ll just raise a glass, cry out “dilly dilly,” and send more cases of their most popular products to the nearest liquor store.

I’m admittedly curious. Then again, I’m also curious what it would feel like if I put my face in a bucket of eels, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to act upon that intrigue. I’m not going to decry it as awful and nobody should give it a shot – like any form of food and drink, beer is subjective. For me, though, there are too many genuinely good – and genuine – craft beers out there to try, made from breweries that won’t sell me something and snicker at me in successive breaths. Besides, the World Series ends tonight. The beer will probably drop from my consciousness after the final pitch is tossed. At least, that’s my hope.