A drunken conversation about art, beer, and wrasslin' with Steven Leibensperger
by Jon Billett
Since launching in March of 2013, Kutztown’s Saucony Creek Brewing Company has made their presence felt throughout our area with their forward-thinking beers. You’ve probably heard about their hyper-local farm-to-table approach to ingredients and brewing. Or maybe you checked out their extreme sports stunt show at The P.O.P.E. during last year’s Philly Beer Week.
However, it’s not just the liquid in the bottles or the over-the-top tap takeovers that have been instrumental towards the success of their brand. This past fall, I was browsing a crowded Wegmans’ display of every new pumpkin beer under the harvest moon. And then I spotted her—the Maple Mistress. I was roped in by the seductive, hotcake-yielding anime pirate gracing the outside of the 4-pack. The artwork sold me, and the beer was everything I imagined it would be—dangerously beautiful and adventurously delicious.
Steven Leibensperger is the talented artist behind the impressive family of Saucony’s beer labels—including the Maple Mistress. He enthusiastically took a trip from the Lehigh Valley to visit me at Fishtown’s Barcade for three rounds. We talked about how he landed the gig at Saucony, his creative process for each beer and how late pro wrestling legend The Ultimate Warrior, can serve as an inspiration for aspiring brewers looking to make a name for themselves.
Dock Street Jip The Blood
Imperial Berliner Weisse – 6.8%
STEVEN: I wasn’t expecting it to be as tart or sour as it is, but it’s pretty good! For a Berliner weisse, the ABV is a little deceiving. Drinks like a 4, hits you like a 7.
JON: How did you get hooked up with the design gig at Saucony Creek?
Well, I’ve been an artist my entire life. As one grows older, it’s cool to be able to apply your art skills to hobbies and interests that you pick up along the way. At this point in my life, a big interest of mine is—as you would guess—beer.
So, it all starts with my good buddy Tom, who happens to be a homebrewer. One day, he hit me up to tell me he was thinking of bottling his latest beer and asked me if I wanted to design the label for it. It was an imperial pumpkin ale aged in a whiskey barrel. We named the beer Sir Pumpkin Noggin. The character on the label was pretty cool. He had a whiskey barrel as the head with a pumpkin face carved out of it, which sat on top of this very debonair man in a three-piece suit, sipping his pumpkin ale out of a glass with his pinky up. It turned out great and we were both super proud of it!
Here’s where it all ties together. Coincidentally, Tom is also a reporter. One day, he was assigned to go out to Kutztown to interview the folks at Saucony Creek Brewing about their new brewery. Somehow, the topic of branding came up and Matt Lindenmuth, the owner and brewmaster, mentioned that they were searching for someone to do the artwork for their labels. Sure enough, Tom had a couple bottles of Sir Pumpkin Noggin in the car! Matt took a peek, got my number from Tom and called me up almost immediately. I went to Kutztown that night. We talked shop, shook hands, and the rest is history! I’ve been fortunate to do every bottle label and can graphic for them since.
Tell me a bit about the creative process that goes into
designing the art for Saucony.
Sure. The Maple Mistress is a good example. The beer was complete and they were ready to start rolling with the artwork. At that point, Matt and I usually get together to toss ideas back and forth. This time around, he had some specific inspiration. He recently had come across this story of Anne Bonny—a ruthless female pirate from the early 1700s (the full story is on the Maple Mistress bottles). She was much braver than her male counterparts and had a reputation as a “fierce hell cat.” The story inspired him to brew an equally ferocious autumn ale with pirate rum spices, butternut squash and maple syrup.
While thinking up an illustration style, we kept thinking of the old skateboard company Hook-Ups. Their brand was known for these killer anime chicks that had this intriguing balance of badass and sexy. I envisioned Anne Bonny exactly the same. From there, I started banging out pencil sketches. I scanned in my favorites, and emailed them over to Matt. He loved them and made the call to run with it. That’s usually how the process goes. Matt will give some general direction and vision, but ultimately leaves it up to me to bring it to life.
Do you always start out with
pencil and paper?
Oh yeah. I tried to hop on the Wacom tablet bandwagon back in the day. Eh. I couldn’t really get into it. I just like the feeling of pencil and paper. It’s a pure organic way to start the sketching process. I just love how it feels.
Sixpoint Encore 2014
Belgian Style Dubbel (Barcade Beer Project) – 8.2%
(Silence. Contemplation.) Hmmm. Ehh. It’s funny—the description has a huge list of hints and notes and I really only can pick up on one or two of them. Maybe my tongue is over-stimulated from the first beer. It’s OK. It falls kinda flat for me.
The characters on the labels have always been responsible for drawing my eye to the Saucony Creek brand. Each character has his or her own unique personality and they perfectly complement the beer that is inside that bottle. We’ve already talked about the Maple Mistress, but let’s talk about some of the others.
How about the Hop Suplex?
When Matt was coming up with the idea for Hop Suplex, he wanted a beer that was not only super drinkable but also had a punch and fight in it. You would just want to keep battling with it all night long. The beer hadn’t been named yet, but we knew it had to have a fighting or a wrestling theme to it. We then started talking about our shared love for late 80’s-early 90’s WWF superstars. They were always these larger than life characters with personas like no other on the planet. You either idolized and wanted to be them, or you despised and wanted to destroy them. How cool would it be to recreate those same fun childhood memories in a beer?!
When it came time to create the characters for this label, I wanted to do some research. Believe it or not, I went onto Amazon and purchased the WWE Encyclopedia. Yes, that book actually exists. It pretty much has a profile/bio for every wrestler EVER. It was so fun to flip through! Lots of ‘Holy crap, I remember that guy!’ moments.
Matt and I eventually narrowed the list down to about 10 characters that we wanted to recreate, but we just kept coming back to the same two—Macho Man and The Ultimate Warrior. They had the most over-the-top and colorful personalities. They fit perfectly with our vision for the beer. So I put my own twist on those two superstars and created little hop-cone-character versions of them battling it out. The audience members were also a bunch of little hops holding up signs and cheering them on.
Awesome! I was a huge wrestling fan as a child—and still am—so you can imagine my excitement when I saw this label for the first time. And the beer is also fantastic, which made it a great experience from top to bottom for me.
Let’s move on to the Kutztown Lager.
What’s the story behind that?
Oh yeah. Huge difference from the Hop Suplex theme! (laughs) The whole Kutztown area is known for its Pennsylvania Dutch roots. Growing up in that area, Matt wanted to create a lager that had ties to the local heritage. But he wanted it to have a unique twist. So, how do you tie those two goals together? Ring bologna, of course! It’s an amber lager brewed with malts that were smoked over Kutztown ring bologna. Pretty awesome, right?
From the first second that he told me about this beer, I knew exactly what the artwork was going to look like. Hex sign, German garb, lederhosen, a sexy beer maid in a dirndl—just over-the-top PA Dutch and German visuals. At the forefront of the label is a proud German dude with a beer stein in one hand, ring bologna in the other, and of course, a portly stomach filled with sausage. The characters, the color palette, and the beer inside all tie together really nicely.
Love it! The artwork is great. It’s unique and complements the beer perfectly.
Thanks! They don’t want to make beers that everyone else is making. My goal was to enhance their unique product with artwork that would further assist in setting them apart from the crowd.
Big DIPA (cask) – 10.5%
Mmmm….very malty for a double IPA. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. This hits the spot after those first two rounds. I enjoy the cask profile.
Going back to our discussion on the Hop Suplex, I say we take a moment to raise our glasses to the late, great Ultimate Warrior. May he rest in peace and may his intensity and energy forever run through our booze-filled bloodstreams.
Cheers to that!
The big appeal for the Warrior was his presentation—the chiseled physique, colorful attire, face paint, intense entrance music, running full-speed to the ring, and how he’d shake the ropes like a lunatic. Without a doubt, it was his look and feel that made him so popular and appealing. What are your thoughts on how important it is for a beer to visually express itself?
I think it’s very important! Walk into a bottle shop, and unless you know exactly what you want to buy, the next deciding factor is going to be visual appeal. Good artwork can draw you in and pique interest.
I have a routine when I am building my own 6-pack of beers. The first three that I choose are beers that I already know and love. I know I can’t go wrong with these and it’s guaranteed that half of my 6-pack is going to be delicious. The next three I will pick solely off of graphics and their description on the label.
If the artwork on a beer looks sub-par, then to me that says that they didn’t value the graphics enough or feel that was an important part of their product to invest money or time into. As an artist, I find that slightly insulting! It’s a turn off.
How about consistency (every label follows the same template) vs. variation where every beer under the same brand looks unique?
Well, that’s another thing that was great about the Ultimate Warrior! He wore a different outfit and set of colors every single time he fought! He always surprised you. As a fan, you couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do next. It was so different from guys you were used to, like Hogan you knew was ALWAYS going to be rocking the red and yellow. At Saucony Creek, we want every label to look unique. There is different inspiration for every beer and I want to let that guide the artwork for the label. The constant is that there is always a different, yet well-thought-out approach.
Hacksaw Jim Duggan walks into your bar and says,
“Pour me a beer, tough guy! Your choice.”
What would you serve him?
(Laughs) Oh man! Well, Hacksaw was an
All-American back-roads kinda guy. I think I
would pour him a Left Hand Sawtooth Ale.
It would complement his wooden 2×4.
Good answer! I was hoping you’d say a
Ahh, that’s a good one too!
Alright, looks like we’re all
done with our beers. What do you
say we get another round and go
to battle on some NBA Jam?
You’re on! Boom shakalaka. a