How Harley-Davidson Came to Make Beer

By March 23, 2020General Posts

by Elena Gorgan from https://www.autoevolution.com/

Throughout its 117-year history, Harley-Davidson often turned to merchandising to boost sales, expand its reach and draw in new segments of the public. Some novelty items were hits and misses, while others fared decently – but not a single one was as successful as the Harley-Davidson Beer.

We’ve already discussed some of the most surprising items Harley sold that you (probably) didn’t know about, and mentioned beer as well. Indeed, one of the most iconic motorcycle makers in the world once sold beers by the four- or six-pack as an official product. In fact, it did so for many years, between 1984 and 2000, and then again in 2018, as a limited-edition for the 5-year anniversary known as the Ride Home.

The association between bikes and beer isn’t surprising. After all, it’s a known fact that bikers prefer beer over wine or even hard liquor, and a can of beer seems more at home in the hand of a biker than anywhere else. As for how Harley itself came up with the idea of stamping the HD name on it, it turns out it went beyond the desire to make some extra cash.

Sure, when it was first launched in 1984, at the Daytona Bike Week, it was a novelty item meant to draw on the Harley name for a boost in profit. The cans were made to resemble oil cans, painted in the colors of a chopper (silver and black), but the beer inside was of the generic type. It was a pure marketing move: take a bland, generic beverage and repackage it in order to sell it as a novelty for more money.

By 1987, though, Harley bosses had understood that, even if their beer would sell either way, it would sell even better if it was a quality product. That’s when the Harley-Davidson Heavy Beer was officially born – and introduced at the same Daytona Bike Week event. Made in partnership with Pabst Brewing Co. and packaged inside a can in silver and orange, with the writing “Daytona 1987,” it was a standalone product that spoke of Harley’s commitment to delivering excellence to the riders.

It also spoke of the company’s desire to take merchandising one step further, by delivering something rival companies couldn’t. Or, as Clyde Fessler, Harley-Davidson marketing executive at the time, explained to the Orlando Sentinel upon launch: when your biggest property is your name, you make sure you don’t put it to shame.

“It’s the best beer brewed in Wisconsin,” Fessler boasted, saying the Heavy Beer was thought of as “anti-light beer.”

“The strongest thing we have is our name,” he continued. “To middle America, Harley Davidson is what the Jaguar name is to the yuppies. We sell 30,000 bikes a year, but 2.5 million T-shirts. We wanted to do something the Japanese couldn’t do. Could you see yourself drinking ‘Suzuki beer?’”

Harley continued making limited-edition beer until 2000, for each Daytona Bike Week edition and other HD-sponsored events. As with other novelty items, cans sold out faster than hot cakes, but sellers would often tell the media that they hardly ever saw buyers drink it. To this day, a can of Harley-Davidson beer is a collectible, whether empty or still unopened.

In 2018, for the 5-year anniversary known as the Ride Home or HarleyMania, Harley-Davidson brought back its beer from the dead. This time, it was a one hundred percent homemade product, in the sense that Harley partnered with 3 breweries from hometown Milwaukee to deliver the same taste bikers had come to love in Heavy Beer.

Good City Brewing, Third Space Brewing, and Milwaukee Brewing Co. used all-Wisconsin malts in creating the beer, which was described as “super balanced and drinkable.” It was made widely available at the event, at $7.99 to $8.99 a four-pack. Like with every other edition of the Harley Beer, demand was so high they had to ask buyers to cut back on orders.

The Orlando Sentinel described the 1987 Daytona beer upon launch as having “a thick head, full aroma and a heavy, European-style body” with a “rich [taste]: a slight malt sweetness at first, a strong taste of hops and a sharp, almost bitter finish.” You can still find unopened cans from that year and later on on eBay and beer-dedicated websites, though drinking them after all these years is probably not a good idea.