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Fearless conquers Best in Craft Beer Awards

ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Ken Johnson of Fearless Brewing hopes his gold medal at the Best in Craft Beer Awards encourages guests to try his Scottish ale.

Historic Vikings feared little when heading to battle, and brew master Ken Johnson has embraced a similar spirit with his brewery.

In 2003, Johnson opened Fearless Brewing at 326 Broadway St. with his wife, Bennett Johnson. In January, he recieved a Gold Medal for his Scottish ale at the 2016 Best in Craft Beer Awards.

Johnson’s ale beat 15 other entries from across the country in its category at the competition, which took place Jan. 23-24 in Bend.

“Judges look at the beer’s flavor, appearance, color and aroma,” said Miles Wilhelm, the event organizer.

Johnson focuses on brewing beer that is stylistically correct, and the judges found his ale to be a fresh take on Scottish ale’s style.

Though Johnson won many awards as a home brewer, this is his first professional win.

“It’s a vindication of our efforts,” he said. “It means acceptance in the industry.”

Johnson credits his success with hard work and dedication. ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Johnson's Scottish Ale, pictured here, received a gold medal at the 2016 Best in Craft Beer Awards. Johnson describes the beer as 'smooth, with a caramel undertone.'

“We just try really hard to make straight up good beer,” Johnson said.

Prior to opening his Viking-themed brewery — a nod to his Swedish heritage — Johnson worked as an engine builder.

“The equipment is different, but I approach a lot of it the same way,” he said. “I always wanted every engine to be a bit better than the last one, and I apply the same philosophy to this.”

Johnson built the brewery’s tables and initial brewing system himself, using converted dairy equipment.

“I was pretty good at welding, wiring and plumbing, so I built that first system myself and kept improving on it as I learned things,” he said.

Last year, the brewery upgraded to a new brewing system that tripled its capacity. “Traditional Scottish ales emphasize malt over bitterness,” Johnson said. “Our Scottish ale is smooth with a caramel undertone.”

With the previous system many things had to be done manually, while the new one is automated.

“The best thing about the new equipment is that it’s way less hard on me,” Johnson said. “The first time we used it, I stood there and cried. I was so happy.”

Johnson says the new system has increased the quantity and consistency of the beer he makes.

He estimates Fearless brews 96 standard kegs of beer per week. If all goes as planned, he hopes to produce 4,000 standard kegs of beer this year and 6,000 standard kegs of beer in 2017.

Johnson emphasizes consistency in his brewing. Fearless offers six types of beers.

“When breweries have 40 different beers, that says to me, that’s a brewer that can’t repeat,” Johnson said, “(The brewer thinks) I made a really good beer, it came out a little different when I tried to make it again so I’ll call it something else.”

In addition to hard work, Johnson also credits the Clackamas River with making Fearless beers stand out.

“It’s the best water to brew with,” he said. “It’s a blank slate, and very soft. There aren’t a lot of minerals and weird stuff in it.”

Fearless beers are distributed throughout Oregon, Washington, Western Canada and Illinois.

Johnson hopes his award encourages people to try his Scottish ale.

“There are a lot of beers on the planet,” Johnson said. “I hope before you’re done playing each night, you drink one of mine.”