A Simple Aesthetic

Local Artist, Nicky Gaston, Reimages the Aesthetic at Steel Bonnet Brewing Company

By Julie Horner

The community packed the Boulder Creek Brewery Outpost on its final Friday to wish the business bon voyage as it prepares to move operations north of town. Local brewers, Donald and Susan Cramb, owners of Scotts Valley’s Steel Bonnet Brewing Company, were in attendance along with local artist, Nicky Gaston, their new beer label designer. Long a tasting room loyal, Nicky recently began work designing hand-illustrated labels for each of Steel Bonnet’s handcrafted brews. With a major artistic appetite, the labels are part of his freelancing efforts late into the night after his 9-to-5 in Santa Cruz.


A full-time graphic designer currently working for NHS distribution, the parent company of Santa Cruz Skateboards – and a voracious skateboarder himself – he’ll stop by Steel Bonnet on his way back to Boulder Creek and “get a beer…maybe two!” With an impressive graphic art portfolio in hand, Nicky remembers his initial meeting with Don: “After about five minutes, Don said, ‘when can you start?’”

He began work about six months ago producing the labels in batches of four. “Don trusted my creative judgement.” It was Nicky’s design for Hop the Heck IPA – his favorite of the brews at Steel Bonnet –  that inspired the aesthetic for the other labels in the series. “There are roughly five colors per graphic,” he says, and each graphic is reflective of the theme of the beer itself, rich in finite detail and saturated hues that you would find in nature. Hop blossoms are naturally green and yellow, for instance, and he’s matched the color of the real thing as closely as possible on the label. Likewise, the color of a Hawaiian sunset for the Pau Hana brew, or the tones of the forest for Bear Creek Brown, the nano brewery’s tribute to Bear Creek Road in Boulder Creek; stomping grounds for the Crambs.


Already known for his graphic artwork for Alice’s Restaurant and for the Parks Project, among others, and enthusiastic about continuing to build his freelance opportunities, the labels he’s created for Steel Bonnet will also translate to tap handles, T-shirts, and other merchandise. For Nicky it’s all about mutual respect and keeping it local. “Their beer is good, I support what they’re doing and how they make their beer. Not only do I want to work with them, I love what they do.”


Nicky just finished the last of the 14 labels, which was in honor of Donald and Susan’s new grandbaby, Connor. “The beer is entitled ‘Conski Cream Ale’ and the graphic consists of an illustrated image of Connor after a full messy meal.” Ironically, the graphic was completed on the day of Steel Bonnet’s recent 2nd year anniversary, “which was a wonderful way to finish up all 14 images,” Nicky says. “Steel Bonnet does an excellent job at both perfecting their crafted beers and staying innovative with new limited releases of seasonal offerings.”

“Stop by Steel Bonnet’s wonderful Scotts Valley location and grab a pint of some of the best beer around!” And while you’re there, check out the new beer labels created by San Lorenzo Valley’s Nicky Gaston.

Nicky Gaston: www.instagram.com/nickygaston | http://ngcreativeco.com

Steel Bonnet: www.facebook.com/SteelBonnetBrewing
20 Victor Square B, Scotts Valley

Copyright 2017, Julie Horner for the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin. Originally published in the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin November 2017 print edition. https://santacruzmountainslocal.comwww.facebook.com/SantaCruzMountainBulletinwww.facebook.com/leap2threepublications

Scots, Wha Hae!

The Santa Cruz Mountains Celebrate the Return of the Scottish Highland Games

By Julie Horner

A fair breeze tempers the early afternoon warmth, occasional showers of leaves whisper a hint of autumn and the last of the outdoor festivals and refreshing river plunges. The change of season comes sooner for those who live closer to the lee side of Ben Lomond Mountain as midday rides lower along the ridge. The shadows have grown longer, slanted sun puddles drench the valley floor, and the morning air is tinged with the sweet familiar tang of wood smoke.

Indian summer is time suspended, and everything smells dusty and rich and thirsty. It’s a time to celebrate the harvest and follow the urge to linger outdoors while the weather allows.

On Saturday, October 3 under the crackling blue sky, Roaring Camp welcomes the Big Trees Scottish Gathering and Highland Games, a colorful larger-than-life festival of music, sport, dance, food and flavor steeped in Celtic tradition and compelling history.

Scottish and Irish family groups, or “clans,” come together at the Highland Games to discover and celebrate their heritage, often wearing the wool plaid twill “tartan” associated with their family or particular ancestral region. “Everyone wants to belong to something noble,” said long time valley resident, event organizer and Games Chief, Jeff Simpson.

“What I find unique about this type of event, it’s not like any other kind of festival. People come as spectators and leave as participants after visiting their clan tent and finding out they have heritage… and a sense of belonging to something that they never knew about before.”

A spirited Highland festival can take you out of the present and into the living pages of a passionate and hard-lived history. For those who study the ancestry and participate in the Games, Jeff says, “We tend to surround ourselves with people who would rather be in a different era…living in the modern day is only a placeholder until they can get back to where they really belong.”

Jeff, along with former Boulder Creek business owner and Celtic jewelry artist, Garth Duncan, helped bring the games to the valley in the 1990s with the inception of the Loch Lomond Celtic Society. Inspired in part by the legendary “Scottish Days” at Ben Lomond’s Highlands Park back in the 1960s, Jeff said, “We started conceptually in Garth’s shop on Memorial Day 1994, while talking about doing a Games and a Celtic educational venture in the San Lorenzo Valley.”

Jeff has been Chief since 1996, and Garth spearheaded what became the popular Loch Lomond Games at Highlands Park from 1997-2006 before moving his family and his craft to Scotland.

The Loch Lomond Highland Games attracted professional athletes, skilled artisans, internationally renowned Celtic musicians, and thousands of visitors, which, as the festival grew, resulted in traffic difficulties along the Highway 9 corridor. The games were renamed and moved to San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz to more readily accommodate the growing crowds, but increasing costs and other factors contributed to the decision to suspend the Games in 2014.

Now with the Big Trees Scottish Gathering and Highland Games, Jeff breathes new life into the celebration of all things Scottish and rekindles the sense of connection to the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The reason we want to have the Games in the valley is because of the rich Scottish heritage.” Place names such as Ben Lomond, Bracken Brae and Bonny Doon; road signs bearing the names of the valley’s Scottish settlers; a stone fountain near Highlands Park marking the location of the long vanished 19th century Rowardennan Hotel , the name referencing an enchanted Scottish flower and the Celtic word for “high woodland.”

The opportunity to host the Games on the green at Roaring Camp offers festival goers a sumptuous natural expanse to marvel over centuries-old athletic competition, living history displays, hand crafted finery for sale, hearty traditional fare, local ale, bagpipes, and live Celtic music and Highland dancing. Jeff says, “For me, it’s all about keeping things local…I love Roaring Camp…so many festivals are at a fairgrounds next to the road…Roaring Camp is under the redwoods in the mountains.” A befitting place where notorious mountain man, Isaac Graham, himself of Scottish decent, established a sawmill and distillery in the 1830s – an encampment so boisterous that it became known as “Roaring Camp.”

“It is with great honor and anticipation that I invite you to join us as the clans once again gather in the highlands of the Santa Cruz Mountains! Bring your family and friends and for a day immerse yourself in the sites, the sounds, and the taste of an ancient culture kept alive in the hearts and by the hands of its proud descendants.” – Jeff Simpson, Chief

Saturday, October 3, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm

Roaring Camp Historic Railroad
5401 Graham Hill Road
Felton, California 95018

Adults: $16-$20
Senior (65+): $12-$15
Juniors (11-17): $12-$15
Children 10 and under free
Discount advance tickets on the Web: http://bigtreescots.com/

The Big Trees Scottish Gathering and Highland Games share the grounds at Roaring Camp October 3 with The Harvest Fair & Steam Festival.

Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email: leap2three@gmail.com On the Web: santacruzmountainslocal.com