Cask Ale

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A lot of customers have asked if we would ever serve cask ale.  Well, now we do!  Every week we offer a new cask version of one of our beers.  Sometimes it is just a straight cask version, but most of the time we use some cool extra ingredients to make a special version of the beer.  So, what exactly is cask beer, and how does it work?

Casks are the traditional English way of serving beer, dating back hundreds of years.  They come in a few different sizes, but they share the same features: shaped like a shorter, fatter keg, they have two openings–one to allow for dispensing the beer, and the other to allow air to displace the beer as it is poured.

Taste-wise, the two main differences with cask ale is that it is served at cellar temperature (55 degrees) and has lower carbonation.  This combination gives the beer a very fluffy, quaff-able quality that is very complimentary to English styles.  If you’ve never had a good cask ale, it is a little bit similar to nitro beer…in fact, nitro beer was created to mimic the profile of a cask beer.

On that note, while good cask ale is fantastic, it takes some skill and knowledge to do it right, and without proper care, it can be pretty terrible.  My first experience with cask was at a bar that had no idea what they were doing.  The beer was warm and very yeasty.   The cask was sitting on the bar, with no means of cooling; 70 degrees is not cellar temperature.  The beer was far from brite, the result of agitating the cask before serving.

So, let’s do a brief rundown of the traditional way to package and serve cask beer.  First, uncarbonated beer from a fermenter or brite tank is used to fill the cask.  Priming sugar is added to naturally carbonate the beer to around 1.2 volumes of CO2.  Here is a handy chart for cask carbonation.  If you use the chart correctly, the carbonation level should be perfect.  The keystone is put in place to seal the cask, which should be left warm for a few days to carbonate.  Then, the cask should be moved to cold storage until ready to serve.

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The night before serving the cask, it should be tapped and moved to whatever position it will be served from.  At Crooked Run, we currently use simple wooden stillage and gravity dispense.  This is the easiest and simplest way to serve cask ale.  After tapping, we put the keg up on the bar and put an ice blanket and insulating jacket on it.  The next day, the beer is ready to serve.  This period of rest is important, because it gives the yeast time to settle.  Moving the cask around is not a good idea.

IMG_4892We put one pin cask of beer on tap every Saturday, and serve it through to Sunday.  You can extend the serving life of cask beer with such extras as a cask widge, caskerator, and/or cask breather, but we currently don’t have the room for these until we get our new draught system.  In any cask, I like the simplicity of stillage and gravity dispense, plus we plan to bring some to some festivals.  I’ve had a lot of fun doing special cask versions of different beers.  So far, I’ve done cherry chocolate and coffee versions of Shadow of Truth, our black tripel, raspberry and vanilla versions of Wishing Well, our Irish stout, and a tangerine version of Lord Logan, our English double IPA.  The last one was my favorite!

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First Bottling Run

We have bottles!  Lee and I have been talking about this for over a year, and I am very happy to say that we will now be doing small runs of some of our bigger beers in 750 ml bottles for sale at the brewery and local bottle shops.  What does it take to bottle?  A lot goes into it.

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First, the bottles themselves.  We chose thick, Belgian-style 750 ml bottles with crown caps.  I really like the bomber format, and I feel it is very conducive to flavorful, high-ABV beers, where you are likely to share the beer with others.  We will only be bottling these styles of our beers, since I want our beers to be able to stand up to a bit of aging in case they linger on shelves.

Second, the labels.  Our very talented graphic design and branding guy worked on our first label along with our logo refresh.  The label is simple, easy to read, and recognizable.  You can go many different directions with a label, but this was always what we wanted.  For the material, we wanted either felt or biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP).  We chose BOPP because it is pretty much waterproof, and a lot easier to apply, unlike felt.  I am very glad that we did–our first run would have been fairly unpleasant with felt labels.

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Now, on to the fun part–the machine!  Lee built this four-head counterpressure filler.  After looking at various youtube videos, we came up with this unique design.  It is built of Unistrut, and uses drawer slides to move the manifold and fillers up and down so that bottles can be placed underneath.  There is a trough underneath that runs to a drip bucket.  Not counting the Unistrut which was free, the total cost for this part of the project was $400 for parts.  Not too bad, considering most similar fillers you can buy run at least $2000.

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Our friend Frank built us this label machine.  It’s hand operated, and works like a charm.  The only change we are going to make is to add a small piece that applies some pressure to the surface of the label/bottle to keep it smooth.  Total cost: some beer for Frank.

Before we bottled, we wanted to get our beer tested to make sure it will be shelf-stable.  This part is very important.  All of our beer comes out clean-tasting, but since we brew and serve beer in a tiny space, I have always had my doubts as to just how clean our beer actually is.  (This is why we never repitch yeast.)  If it’s going to sit around warm for weeks or months, it can’t be at risk for refermenting or souring.  Jasper Akerboom at Bright Yeast Labs took a look at our beer for us.  As it turns out, it was free of microbes or brett, but has a little bit of wild yeast.  Since the beer we are bottling is extremely dry, I am not particularly worried about this, as there is practically nothing left to ferment.  We will keep trying to get our beer to be as clean as possible.

We set up everything on Sunday morning for a small little run: five cases of Shadow of Truth, our black Belgian tripel.  We had two hours budgeted for the run in a very long day that included a double batch, opening the tasting room, and removing our entire grain milling area (more on this later).  Our friends Nicole and Corey came by to assist.  We were done in one hour!  Everything went about as smoothly as it could.  The machine works perfectly–there is practically zero foam.  We can even reduce times in the future with a bit more CO2 pressure to speed up fills.

As I mentioned before, our beer wasn’t 100% clean, but this will hopefully be negligible on a beer like Shadow that has an FG of 1.002/0.5.  One of the ways I believe will improve sanitation was to store and mill our grain off-site, since we lack a partitioned area to mill in, and milling creates a tremendous amount of dust.  We built a small shed in my basement with a dehumidifier, and now all the cluttered piles of grain bags are stored there.  This has three great benefits: reduced dust, looks way neater to customers, and allows us to finally start our barrel program!  More info to come on this.

Next on the bottling list: Valhalla golden stout, Supernatural hibiscus saison, and Machismo smoked chipotle RIS.

 

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Our Business Philosophy

IMG_1041Craft beer’s renaissance has truly been amazing.  There is such a wide offering of excellent beer in America that the variety and quality is staggering.  With more effort, care, and money being spent on good beer, I think it’s important to convey my personal philosophy when it comes to beer.  I try to make this evident in how we run our little brewery, but I’d like to spell it out here so that it is obvious.

Beer is a drink for the people.  I never want beer to become something inaccessible to everyday people.  That means that our prices will always be comparatively low for the area, and will only get lower as we grow.  Right now, we always try to keep a $5 session ale pint and $6 IPA pint on tap.  When you’ve had a hard day or you just want to relax, your wallet shouldn’t take a big hit in order to enjoy a true pint of beer.

On that subject, you will never find us using cheater pints.  If you’re unaware, cheater pints mimic pint glasses, but have a large glass bubble at the bottom, so that you aren’t really getting a pint.  They have become ubiquitous in the craft beer scene.  Our pints are 16 ounces, and our tulips are 12 ounces.

Our growler fill prices are a bit steep at the moment, which is something I hope to change.  We charge $16 a fill, but I would like to lower that to $9-12 per fill in the future.  In my opinion, a growler should be a similarly-priced alternative to a six pack.  I want to encourage people to buy beer straight from the source, and to share it with others.  Growlers are the perfect format for this.  Our prices need to stay where they are right now, but in the future, expect to pay less.

However, we always offer free tastes.  Besides a flight, I will give a taste of any beer to anybody for free.  It’s just good business practice.

Finally, you will never see a beer for more than $7.50 on tap at Crooked Run.  I do not care how much it costs me to make a beer–I am not going to price it higher than this.  Truthfully, I don’t even like charging that much, but it’s necessary to recoup the cost on some pricey recipes, and for the time spent on sours.

I think we make some great beers and I really enjoy sharing them with people.  Even if we made the best beer in the world, I still wouldn’t want to see a $10 tab for one beer at my place.  My favorite part of my job is hanging out with customers, enjoying a pint, and talking about what is coming up next.  I don’t ever want to see people as a way to wring money at every opportunity.

Maybe I’m not a good businessman with this philosophy, but I don’t care.  I’d rather do what I think is right than what earns the most money.  I never want to lose sight of these ideals; if, by some miracle, down the road we grow to a bigger place, I still want to be at the bar, hanging out with all the people that believed in me and made this business a success.

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Boom and Bust

The Great Depression. Unemployed men queued outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. The storefront sign reads 'Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.' Chicago, 1930s (Newscom TagID: evhistorypix027753.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Mitch Steele of Stone recently wrote a very insightful blog post about the future of craft beer in the U.S.  Intensifying competition and scarcity of human resources and ingredients will lead to tougher times for our nation’s teeming population of craft breweries.  Will this bubble burst?

Steele touches on some really good points.  The big three threats to craft beer in my mind have always been limited taps, the three-tier system, and scarcity of resources.  Let’s examine these.

Limited taps: a bar only has so many taps, obviously.  Even though many bars exist that have over 50 taps, this means that they go through beers more slowly.  In the past, local beer always had an edge at a lot of craft-focused bars, and it was relatively easy to get on tap in your home turf.  However, most bars are not going to only sell local beer (although some do) so the limited amount of “local taps” have to be split among an increasing number of local breweries.   Furthermore, since most breweries tend to brew a light beer and an IPA as flagships, (ourselves included) this limits what may go on.

Profit margins on draught distribution are pretty low, so if you are constantly having to beat on doors to get on tap, you’re not really making very much money.  With such a plethora of choices for beer buyers, some brands may never get beyond a one-and-done or rotator status.

Three-tier system: For those unfamiliar with this, this is the system put in place after prohibition ended which separates breweries, distributors, and bars.  Virginia doesn’t allow for self-distribution, so breweries must sell their beer to a distributor, who then sells it to a bar.  There are ways around this, but it is difficult.  In and of itself, this isn’t so bad, but it has the potential to be very bad for smaller craft breweries.  Big breweries are already purchasing distributors in addition to craft breweries.  When a company owns some craft brands and a distributor, they can offer both lower prices and a selection of proven quality brands.  If you’re a bar owner, you could find it enticing and easier to deal with one distributor who can offer you this.  This is bad for the consumer as well.  Do we really want to live in a world where every bar has the same beers on tap?

Scarcity of resources: Steele talks about hop shortages and a lack of qualified brewery staff.  These are both big problems.  I can only hope that hops production scales up; as of right now, Nelson Sauvin hops are contracted out until the year 2020.  And let’s not even talk about water shortages in the west coast.  Hops use a serious amount of water.

I’ll go even further and talk about something that has been on my mind for the past year: climate change.  The price of beer is highly dependent on the price of hops, barley, and water–historically, very inexpensive.  What happens if this changes?  What happens if the state of drought in California is permanent?  What happens if extreme weather makes growing these crops more difficult?  At the end of the day, beer is a luxury item.  If the future climate dictates that sacrifices be made, I don’t think beer would and should be something that takes precedence over food crops.

So now that we’ve talked about the negatives, let’s talk about some brighter points.  First, bars may only have so many taps to spare for a brewery, but thanks to law changes like Virginia Senate Bill 604 and equivalent bills in other states, breweries always have tap-room sales to help out.  Smaller breweries such as yours truly don’t have to worry about selling a mountain of beer to survive.  Bars may become more of a venue to experience what the nation as a whole has to offer, while for local beer, folks will just go straight to the source.

Second, even if Bud-Miller-Coors, foreign companies, and large U.S. brands with craft r00ts race to acquire distributors and craft breweries, will every bar turn into the equivalent of an airport or baseball park, with Goose Island, Sam Adams, and Lagunitas on tap and nothing else?  Unlikely.  Craft beer drinkers crave variety and authenticity.  Some bars may find cheaper beer prices enticing, but beer drinkers will still flock to places that offer something different.

Lastly, the east coast is producing more and more agricultural commodities.  If problems continue on the west coast, you may see our region rise as a source for beer ingredients.  Already, hop production is taking off in Virginia and New York–five years ago, it pretty much didn’t exist.

Who knows what the future will hold?  On that note, I think I’ll have a beer.

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Sours!

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The beer market is really changing in northern Virginia.  When I first opened, I used to brew a brett brux pale ale frequently.  People would ask me if my name was Brett, or would comment on the odd taste.  I put my first true sour on, a wonderful, very tart tripel with roeselare yeast aged a year, to pretty tepid response.

Consequently, I gave up on sours for a while.  However, I did manage to score some East Coast Yeast Bugfarm Blend, a very cool sour blend with over a dozen brett strains.  I went to work on a sour red that I stuck in neutral storage for a while.

As our two year anniversary approached, more and more people were asking about the sour.  I decided I might as well put it on for the anniversary party, after a year and a half of aging.  The beer had turned out rather nice; it was lacking a bit in acidity but had a terrifically complex brett flavor.  It turned out to be a very big hit!  I was surprised at how much more accepting and interested people were in the beer.  Furthermore, a lot of people appreciated the restrained sourness.

I had previous put out a well-received sour, a really nice kettle-soured Berliner weisse with sweet orange peel called Weisse City.  The weisse was super-clean, though, with no brett funkiness whatsoever.  People really liked it.  But are people ready for the spiky, wild, gaminess of a brettanomyces-brew?

I think so.  That’s why I’m going to start offering a rotating sour beer year-round.  The beer will be a mixed fermentation lacto and brett, similar to Crooked Stave’s beers, that has a one month tank time.  In addition, now that I have a good source for local produce, I’ll be going very heavy on the fruit in a lot of beers.  I have some experience doing this back when I was homebrewing–my sour brett brux brown with raspberries remains one of my favorites I’ve ever made.  The criticism of fast, lacto-based sours is that they lack complexity, but with brett and fruit, you can make sure they taste three dimensional.  In addition, the sours we are going to offer won’t be super sour, so they will be more accessible and have some malty complexity.

Now, on to the fun parts: the gear and the process.  The equipment part of this was a bit of a challenge.  To keep this program running, I needed cheap fermenters, brett yeast, and lacto.

For fermenters, I went with Speidel 60 L plastic fermenters.  If you’re unfamiliar with my setup, I have a 1.5 BBL electric system and some Stout conicals that I use to brew most of the beer.  I also have a 15 gallon keggle and jet-burner with a cooler mash tun and two SS Brewtech stainless conicals that I use to brew test batches alongside the main brew during brew days.  I absolutely cannot afford any cross contamination with my fermenters or diaphragm pumps that I use for kegging, so I needed some separate gear for the sours.  The Speidels were a logical choice: heavy HDPE plastic that won’t scratch, wide mouth for adding fruit, and cheap price.  Normally, I keg under CO2 pressure with my stainless conicals so there is no exposure to oxygen, but brett is an oxidative yeast, and I feel pretty comfortable racking via gravity into cornelius-style kegs and then purging with CO2.  This also allows me to use the big stack of cornies that have been gathering dust in my garage, and not cross-contaminate my sankes.

The next challenge was the yeast.  I’ll be using brett brux as my house brett strain.  To maintain a constant population, I got another 5000 ml flask.  I made a starter with about 20% maltodextrin and 80% DME.  The brett should be able to hang out for a while on my badass stirplate chewing on the maltodextrin.  Three days before pitching time, I’ll pour off a portion of the starter into a mason jar and pop it into the refrigerator.  Then I’ll pull it out, decant, and let it warm to room temperature during the brew day, and then pitch.  Afterwards, I’ll replace the lost starter volume with fresh wort.  It will take some trial and error to get the right population, but the best I can achieve without a lab is a good estimate based on volume.

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Brett is only part of the fermentation, however.  Lacto needs to be maintained.  To accomplish this, I’ll be using a trick that a fellow brewer at one of my favorite breweries taught me.  Two words: fage yogurt.  Yep.  Take one spoonful and pop it in a 2000 ml flask of unhopped starter wort.  Let it sit at 100 degrees in a warm water bath heated by a small aquarium pump.  Refrigerate, decant, and pitch.  Cost for a pitch: less than $2.

Both the brett and the lacto will be pitched at the same time.  The beer will be cooled to 90 degrees, which should give the lacto a comfortable start.  Brett does quite well at 80-85, so as the beer sits and ferments at room temperature, the brett will naturally overtake the lacto.  In addition, the oxidative brett should help keep the lacto from working with O2 and producing butyric acid.

The last key to the fermentation is this: after two weeks fermentation time, I’ll pitch some belle saison yeast.  Belle saison is a dry equivalent of French saison.  It tolerates high levels of alcohol and low P.H. and has an extremely high attenuation.  It is a great way to finish off brett beers in a timely fashion, since brett is a sluggish primary fermenter.

The sours I plan on making will only clock in at 8 IBUs, so I am hoping this fermentation plan achieves the right level of sourness.  If the lacto doesn’t do it’s job, I will use food-grade lactic acid to add some tartness.  If the lacto does too good of a job (which I doubt) I will cut back on the pitching rate next time.

So there you have probably my most technical, geeky post I’ve ever written.  I’m sure this process will take some trial and error, but the great thing about it is that it does things the way I try to do everything: effective and cheap, using the limited resources I have access to.  If I get this down, I can use the same approach when we expand to our bigger location.

The four sours I will be releasing are:

Altruism: sour quad with wineberries

Nepotism: sour golden strong with apricots

Agathism: cherry kriek

Barbarism: sour triple IPA

On a final note, here’s the first recipe that I plan to try:

Altruism

13 gallons

1.090 OG

8 IBU

30 lbs pilsner

6 lbs D-180 candi syrup

2 lbs C-40

2 lbs aromatic

1 lb special B

0.25 lbs chocolate malt (300 l)

0.75 ounces Galena (11.4 AA) @ 60 minutes

4 lbs wineberries, frozen and thawed, added to fermenter on day four of fermentation.

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Beers and Cigars

970498_729487383758678_6002433966899910948_nAh, beers and cigars…could there be a better pairing?  (You might be saying scotch…shhh!)  Since we are located beneath Leesburg Cigar & Pipe and have a very nice patio open during the warmer months, many customers like to enjoy a cigar with their beer.  But what is the right type of cigar to go with each beer?

I’m not very good at pairing food with beer, but I have spent a lot of time outside with a brew and a stick, and I’ve found that most people go about it wrong.  When it comes to cigars and beer, pair mild with dark and full with light.  It is similar to some food pairings.  For example, IPA actually pairs well with carrot cake.  Contrary to what a lot of people think, IPA doesn’t really pair well with much, but if you match it with something very sweet, it cleanses your palate between sips.  Opposite pairings work well with cigars, as well.

So instead of reaching for that big imperial stout with your maduro cigar, try a lighter Belgian beer instead.  Belgian yeast really helps cut through the flavor and refreshes your palate.  If you’re smoking a light, spicy Connecticut, try a nice brown ale or porter.  Our black Belgian tripel is an excellent accompaniment to a mild cigar.

If you’d rather go for some more full-on flavor, IPA can pretty much overpower any cigar flavor and will “pair” pretty well, so that’s always an option.  So without further ado, here are my top three cigars.  These represent something affordable–everyday smokes.

1. Punch Bareknuckle.  Flavor: full.  I was never a huge Punch fan until I tried these.  Simply put, these are incredible in every way.  Full, but not overpowering, with a complex spice flavor that is just perfect.  My favorite.

2. Rocky Patel Connecticut.  Flavor: mild.  RP Connecticut is just a wonderful mild smoke, with a pleasant, aromatic flavor that is sure to please anyone.

3. Sancho Panza Double Maduro.  Flavor: full.  This double maduro is as creamy and flavorful as a perfect shot of espresso.  Delicious.

I frequently stock these three cigars in our little humidor, so grab one to enjoy outside or wander upstairs for a wider selection.  Summer will be over in the blink of an eye, so make the most of it!

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Brewing English Beers

10708601_820562431317839_7253150899409655501_oEnglish beer styles are some of favorites.  Malty, easy-drinking, and distinct, English ales are fun to brew and present a unique challenge for experimentation.  The different styles of English beer are not extremely popular in America, where American IPA tends to rule the land.  However, they can be some great beers to brew.  Best enjoyed fresh, a bottle of Fuller’s gathering dust on the store shelf can never compare to a nice English-style pint made nearby.

So, what defines an English beer?  First, it’s the malt.  English barley is more highly kilned, producing a flavor that is toasty, with a touch of honey.  With Maris Otter or other UK barley as the base for the beer, you’re going to get a fuller malt profile even without specialty grains compared to a pilsner malt or American barley based beer.  Graham cracker isn’t too far off.

Second, it’s the yeast.  English beers use English ale yeast, top-fermenting yeasts which tend to be a bit fruitier than American ale strains.  They can also leave more residual sugar, resulting in a fuller malt profile, which compliments the grain bill.

Third, it’s the hops.  In comparison to spicy noble hops or citrusy American hops, English hops tend to taste earthy and sometimes floral.  You might get a bit of fruitiness, but more like orange marmalade rather than grapefruit or mango from Centennial or Citra hops.

Last, English beers tend to be more restrained in general.  You’re not looking for the bold roasty flavor of a robust porter, the in-your-face citrus of American IPA, or the high ABV of an imperial ale.  You don’t want that.  More hops and roasted malts will cover up that great toasty malt flavor.  Furthermore, with English hops, a little goes a long way.

From a brewing perspective, I like designing English-style beers that are a bit outside the box.  It’s a challenge, since the styles are generally fairly restrained and simple.  Here are three recipes I greatly enjoy, named after my setter, Logan.  The first is a pretty standard beer, but the rest are something you don’t see too often.  As you can tell from the recipes, I am a fan of the Fuller’s strain.  Ferment cool and perform a diacetyl rest for optimum flavor.  I also love Target as a dry hop–it has an orange flavor that is a nice compliment to earthy EKG hops.

Logan’s Song: English pale ale

This is a really basic English bitter that is a fantastic everyday beer to have.  A nice showcase for Maris Otter and crystal malt.  Just killer on nitro.

5.5 gallon batch size

1.050 OG

30 IBU

8.5 lbs Maris Otter

0.75 lbs Crystal 60

0.25 lbs Crystal 120

0.5 ounces Warrior (18.9 AA) @ 60 minutes

2 ounces East Kent Goldings @ 2 minutes

WLP 002 or Wyeast 1968 yeast

Bad Boy: Black ESB

This beer is interesting and very tasty.  Think of it as a stout, minus the roastiness.  It’s dark, smooth, and hoppy, with a firm bitterness.

1.060 OG

40 IBU

8 lbs Maris Otter

0.75 lbs Carafa III special (dehusked)

0.5 lbs Crystal 15

0.5 ounces Warrior (18.9 AA) @ 60 minutes

2 ounces East Kent Goldings @ 2 minutes

1 ounce Target dry hop

WLP 002 or Wyeast 1968 yeast

Lord Logan: English IPA

This is a pretty cool beer that is a bit like a hoppy English barleywine.  It tastes similar to Avery Hog Heaven.  Amber malt is a great way to give a quasi-smoked flavor to beers reminiscent of pre-industrial revolution porters that used malt kilned over wood fires.

1.085 OG

75 IBU

14 lbs Maris Otter

1 lb Amber Malt

1 lb Turbinado Sugar

0.5 lbs Caramel 120

1.5 ounces Warrior (18.9 AA) @ 60 minutes

2 ounces East Kent Goldings @ 2 minutes

1 ounce East Kent Goldings dry hop

1 ounce Target dry hop

WLP 002 or Wyeast 1968 yeast

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