Eric at Focus on Beer recently posted an excellent rambling exploration of the utility and prevalence of beer reviews in blogs and whatnot. It seems to have inspired a lot of responses, so I figured that I'd throw my had in the ring... but then I read Ed's reasoning, which absolutely nails it:

...a lot of that focus is turned to you as a reader and why in general, beer reviews probably aren't truly useful to you. But I'd like to take a moment and focus on someone that I think beer reviews are greatly useful to, and that's us bloggers ourselves.
I've been blogging since the turn of the century (though this beer blog is only a few years old at this point), and my number one reason for blogging has always been selfish. I want to learn about something, so I write about it. I like learning about stuff and of course I want to share it with everyone, and I would't maintain public blogs if I didn't hope for some sort of audience, but that's all secondary. In the case of this blog, I was in the midst of exploring the vast world of beer and getting a little lost in the process. So I started blogging about every beer I drank. Learning has always been the goal, and if you don't believe me, go and read my first post.

Of course, I didn't want this blog to be purely reviews, but it sorta evolved into that. I try to spice things up with notes about the brewery, pedantic style debates, historical digressions, and even more off the wall stuff like Screenplays or Choose Your Own Adventure Beer Reviews. I'll be the first to admit that my tasting notes are a little on the dry side, but it's the stuff surrounding them that's most important. I'd hope that I'm somewhat successful on that score, though I have noticed recently that it's getting a little harder. I've already written about a lot of interesting breweries and styles, and I don't want to keep repeating myself, so I have to come up with something else.

As for whether or not reviews can be useful, I think they can, but it still requires you to have a fair amount of baseline knowledge. It's funny, but I find reviews much more useful now than I did when I first started trolling BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. Part of that is that my BS meter has been calibrated to tune out blowhards who use absurd descriptors and whatnot, and part of it is that I've learned enough about my tastes to pick up on certain aspects of a beer that I know will turn me on/off (whether it's a highly rated review or not).

Ultimately, it's all a bit of a wank. Everyone is different, and while my approach is to compulsively write about what I'm drinking, it's not like you have to do anything special to enjoy beer. You don't need any specialized knowledge, you just need to drink it, which is good enough for me.

Anywho, here's a beer from a brewery I really like that I found a bit disappointing. I actually think these tasting notes might even be useful if this is a beer you're thinking of purchasing, because it's a really weird beer. Not Calagione-level weird, but still. Might be worth knowing what you're in for with this one...

Telegraph Obscura Cacao

Telegraph Obscura Cacao - Pours a pale golden brown color, not what you'd expect from something brewed with chocolate, with a finger of bubbly off white head. Smells of spicy, musty Belgian yeast. As it warms, that cacao comes through loud and clear. Taste also features that spicy Belgian yeast character, with chocolate flavors coming through strong late in the taste and lingering into the finish. As it warms, the cacao becomes even more pronounced. There's a dry bitterness in the finish as well. Unfortunately, these flavor elements don't really come together in a completely harmonious way. It's like the cacao is fighting the Belgian yeast instead of meshing. It's not horrible, but it was a little disappointing. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated and spicy, medium bodied, but easy enough to drink. Overall, this isn't a spectacular beer, a little muddled and unfocused, but it's not the abomination that the ratings seem to indicate either. Spicy Belgian style with some chocolate notes that aren't particularly well matched. Not bad, but again, it's not a harmonious combo. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 7.3% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a goblet on 5/25/13. Batch No. 99.

I still want to explore more of Telegraph's offerings, particularly Gypsy ale, and I'm sure you'll be seeing more of them on the blog at some point.

Though this Texas brewery has only been open since 2004, it has roots dating back to 1847. William Rahr was one of many German immigrants who brought their love of beer to the new world. After he, uh, fell into a brew kettle and died, his sons carried on the tradition for a while, renaming the brewery William Rahr's Sons Co. I'm not really sure what happened to that brewery (to hazard a guess: prohibition), but Rahr's malt business has continuously operated since 1847 and supplies a large portion of the brewing industry. I don't think that has anything to do with the new Texas operation, but it's always neat to find old-school U.S. brewing institutions.

Anywho, this is a Winter Warmer style beer aged in bourbon barrels for 10 weeks. A short stay, to be sure, but then, Winter Warmers probably can't stand up to super-long durations like a gigantic stout or barleywine, so maybe that's for the best. Let's find out, shall we?

Rahr and Sons Bourbon Barrel Aged Winter Warmer

Rahr & Sons Bourbon Barrel Aged Winter Warmer - Pours a very dark brown color with off white head. Smells of chalky malts, not quite roasty, but dark malts, along with some spice, as befits the Winter Warmer style. Not really detecting much in the way of Bourbon Barrel action in the nose though. Taste is sweet with lots of common winter mulling spices, ginger, cinnamon, and the like. The bourbon comes out in the taste, a little boozy, with those roasted malts coming through in the finish. Not quite as harmonious as I'd like, but it's decent. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, spicy, a little chalky, medium bodied. Overall, a solid brew, not mindblowing and it could use a little more balance, but I'm glad I got to try some. B

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 5/24/13. Bottled Winter 2012.

I've got another big Rahr & Sons brew in the cellar right now, though I'm not sure when I'll break that sucker out... perhaps the next beer club!

The last time I had Eclipse, I was wondering if it was really possible to pick out different makes of Bourbon by drinking the beer aged in said Bourbon's barrels. Fifty Fifty Brewing's Eclipse series is ideal for that sort of experiment, but I think my methodology is off - I'm drinking this three months after I drank my last one (which was aged in Elijah Craig 12 barrels). I suppose I could throw on some Journey and do a comparative tasting of 5 different variants... Total eclipse of the hangover. Just in time for summer!

Rittenhouse Rye was originally distilled just a hop and a skip away in Linfield, PA (It's now made in Kentucky, along with Heaven Hill's other brands), which is why I recognized the name. Rittenhouse Square and Rittenhouse Hotel are Philadelphia institutions, named after local Age of Enlightenment man David Rittenhouse, a noted astronomer and clockmaker who went on to become the first director of the United States Mint (a seemingly strange shift in priorities, but then, Isaac Newton had the same basic trajectory, though he was obviously more well regarded.) Anywho, the most common Rittenhouse Rye expression is a 100 proof whisky, which is slightly stronger than the Elijah Craig 12 (47% ABV). Too small to notice? Well, I had found this one to be more whisky forward than the EC 12. Is that a function of age (only three months?), or did these two different barrels produce genuinely different beers? I may have to risk the hangover to find out sometime.

Imperial Eclipse Stout - Heaven Hill Rittenhouse Rye

Imperial Eclipse Stout - Heaven Hill Rittenhouse Rye - Pours a dark brown, almost black color with a finger of light brown head that actually leaves a little lacing. Smells deeply of that barrel aged character, lots of whisky, oak, vanilla, a little bit of caramel, and the faintest whisper of roast. Taste is full of rich caramel, whisky, oak, and vanilla, with the roast again taking a back seat (definitely not as roasty as that Elijah Craig 12). Mouthfeel is full bodied (but not quite the monster that a lot of BA stouts can be), smooth, well carbonated, lots of richness. Overall, this is more whisky forward than the EC 12, but the balance that marks Eclipse is still in place and kicking. This is a superb beer. A

Beer Nerd Details: 9.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. waxed bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 5/18/13. Bottle No. BR 2. 2012 Vintage.

I have a couple bottles of Eclipse variants in my cellar, and one of my local beermongers still has some on the shelf too. You'll definitely be seeing more of this stuff on the blog at some point.

I covered the philosophy behind Firestone Walker's barrel program in wonky, exhaustive detail when I wrote about Firestone Walker's last Anniversary Ale, but for the uninitiated, Firestone Walker is a brewery that likes to ferment and age beers in barrels and their Anniversary Ale represents an annual tradition whereupon they invite their neighboring winemakers to the brewery to get sloshed and devise a blend of several component beers (each of which was specifically made to be blended, though FW has taken to releasing the components on their own, to much fanfare).

The XV blend heavily favored Barley Wines, and most of the component beers were aged in bourbon and/or brandy barrels. The breakdown was 76% Barley Wine style beers, 19% Stout and 5% Imperial IPA. It had a nice deep, dark amber color to it - gorgeous, delicious beer. This most recent offering's components skew a little darker:

  • 23% Velvet Merkin (8.7% ABV) Traditional Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon barrels.
  • 22.5% Stickee Monkee (12.5% ABV) English Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels.
  • 20.3% Double Double Barrel Ale (14.2% ABV) Double Strength English Pale Ale. Aged 100% in Firestone Union Barrels.
  • 10.8% Parabola (13% ABV) Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon Barrels.
  • 8.1% PNC (13.0% ABV) American Strong Buckwheat Stout. Aged in Tequila barrels.
  • 5.4% Helldorado (11.5% ABV) Blonde Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 5.4% Bravo (13.4% ABV) Imperial Brown Ale. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 4.5% Wookey Jack (8.3% ABV)- Black Rye India Pale Ale. 100% Fresh, Dank & Hoppy 100% Stainless Steel

Definitely more equitable distribution here: 53.6% Barley Wine style beers, 41.9% Stout, and 4.5% Black IPA. Even amongst the Barley Wines, the lighter colored Helldorado accounts for less. Plus, instead of Double Jack (a DIPA), we get Wookey Jack (a Black IPA - basically a hoppy stout). Also new this year is a brew aged in Tequila barrels, which is a nice twist. Alrighty then, enough nerding out on statistics, let's get down to brass tacks:

Firestone Walker XVI - Anniversary Ale

Firestone Walker XVI - Pours a very dark brown color, almost black, with a finger of tan head that leaves a little lacing as I drink. Smells of boozy bourbon, oak, vanilla, and caramel. Some char, not quite roast, is also present. A little fruitiness and dank, piney hops emerge as it warms too. Taste starts sweet with bourbon, oak, dark fruit and huge caramel notes (reminiscent of crème brulee) like a BA barleywine, with some piney, resinous hops emerging in the middle and a hint of chocolate and roast peeking in towards the boozy oak and vanilla finish. Super complex, evolves quite well as it warms. Mouthfeel is not quite as thick and chewy as expected, medium to full body, well carbonated, a hint of sweet, boozy stickiness, but still well balanced. Overall, this is fantastic beer. I'm not quite as breathless as I was when I tried XV, but this works incredibly well in its own right. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 5/17/13. Bottled November 2012.

Superb stuff, like all of Firestone Walker's barrel aged beers. I've managed to snag another one of these anniversary bottles (along with some Sucaba), and I'm keeping my eyes peeled for Parabola whenever it shows up in the area (hope I didn't miss it, actually). Rumor has it that Velvet Merkin will be bottled later this year as well, which I'd really be curious to try... Firestone Walker is also upping their game, increasing their barrel capacity and even playing with wild yeasts and bacterias, etc... in their new barrel room. Will be very curious to see if next year's anniversary blend incorporates sours...

Saint Arnold Endeavour IPA

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Houston's Saint Arnold brewery has been on my radar for a while, but I missed out on them during my last trip to Texas. Fortunately, that BIF brought me a couple of their brews, including this one. Once an entry in Saint Arnold's Divine Reserve series (limited one-offs released once or twice a year), it was so popular they turned it into a year round brew.

Saint Arnold himself is the patron saint of brewers, famous for a story similar to the Marriage at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, except Arnold took trace amounts of beer and multiplied it for starving parishioners who were running low on supplies. No one describes what that beer tasted like, but let's pretend it was a DIPA like this one:

Saint Arnold Endeavour IPA

Saint Arnold Endeavour IPA - Pours a dark golden orange color with a finger of white head that leaves some lacing as I drink. Smells a little on the dank side, lots of pine and resin, but a nice juicy citrus component hanging around too. Taste has slightly more citrus, an almost peach note, but is still very focused on pine and resin (not that that is a bad thing!) Sweet up front, some creamy crystal malt here, with the hop bitterness kicking in towards the finish and lasting through the aftertaste. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, very smooth, almost creamy, tight carbonation, sweet and a little sticky, but not cloying. Overall, above average DIPA, just barely missing the world-beater level. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.9% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 5/17/13. Bottled 2/13/13.

I've also got me some Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 13, a quadrupel that I'm quite looking forward to. In the meantime, I've got some reviews of a couple barrel aged brews coming up. Stay tuned.

Homebrew Review: Fat Weekend IPA

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I've mentioned this beer a few times since I brewed it, but haven't really done a proper recap. Oh sure, this bottle I'm reviewing was the last bottle in existence (supr .rar 24 bottle release guize), so it's not like you'll get to try it, but as per usual, I have some minor learnings. I think. I mean, I'm no master brewer, but then, that's the point. In W3C markup validation parlance, I get 1 error, 1 warning on this batch. Fortunately, beer fails gracefully, and drinkers are like browsers in that they tend to be forgiving of minor faults. Ok, I'll stop torturing this metaphor now.

First, the error, which was that I overcarbonated the beer. Normally, with a 5 gallon batch, you just pick up a 5 ounce packet of corn sugar and go to town, but I was making a small batch here, so I had to break out the measuring cups and figure out proportions. I clearly erred on the side of too much priming sugar here. Fortunately, all that means is a wicked big head that takes forever to go away. No gushers or anything that annoying, and if you pour carefully, it actually works well enough. Plus, this should be easy to correct in future batches.

Second, the warning, which is that I should probably be more careful about sourcing my hops. In particular, I'm going to be more wary of "loose" hops. This batch came out super piney and resinous, very dank stuff. Now, I enjoy that component of Simcoe and the like, but I also tend to associate that with hops that are less fresh. For my first batch of Simcoe IPA, I had the vacuum sealed HopUnion packets, and when I cracked open my first bottle of that stuff, it had this beautiful, massive grapefruit character. As time went on, that pine character emerged more and more, eventually fading back into the malts the way unfresh IPAs do.

I don't mean to say that the hop character was poor or that this beer was an immediate malt bomb (the way unfresh hoppy beers are), but I never got that big juicy citrus component that I was shooting for. Now, I did switch up the hop schedule, adding some Falconer's Flight and Citra into the mix (with Simcoe remaining on bittering and dry hopping duty), but FF and Citra are also known for their citrus components, so I was still hoping for more there. All my hops for this batch were just in loose baggies, not vacuum sealed or anything (like you'd get from Northern Brewer or HopUnion). Also, I was definitely buying the last of the FF, and there was only a little Simcoe left (in other words, those hops had probably been in the hop fridge for a while). Again, this wasn't a disaster or anything, but it's something I'm going to keep an eye out for in the future.

In general, though, the beer seemed to go over well. It was brewed for a specific event (the eponymous Fat Weekend), and we got through the full half case (which is all I brought) pretty quickly (and I only had one). But enough rambling, let's take a closer look:

Fat Weekend IPA

Kaedrin Fat Weekend IPA - Pours a dark orange color with a big three finger fluffy, bubbly head. Smells super dank, resinous, piney, a little citrus too. Taste follows the nose, crystal malt with lots of dank, resinous, piney hop flavor, some citrus peaking out too. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, super carbonated, perhaps over-carbonated, but still very crisp and refreshing. Overall, it's a solid IPA, a little overcarbonated, and I'm getting the impression that the hops I used were not quite as fresh as I'd like, but it's still quite solid. Not quite as good as my first batch of IPA, but still a nice B level beer (borderline B+, and could have easily gone that way if I did the carbonation right)

Beer Nerd Details: 7.5% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 5/11/13. Hops: Simcoe, Citra, Falconer's Flight. Bottled 2/18/13.

This, of course, reminds me that I should probably get off my arse and fire up my next batch. Planning on a saison at this point - a little scared to introduce Brett into my homebrew setup, but then Beerbecue suggested I name it Kaedrôme Saison and how can I really resist that? Can I do that without wild yeast? Maybe I can just find some strange farmhouse yeast instead of the typical 3711 or 3724 stuff...

Lakewood The Temptress

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Is drinking a beer out of the same brewery's glassware kinda like wearing a band's t-shirt to their concert? Enquiring minds want to know. Or not, because I did it anyway. This is another Texas beer from that BIF trade, and my sender kindly included some fancy schmancy glassware too. It's an imperial milk stout brewed with vanilla:

Lakewood The Temptress

Lakewood The Temptress - Pours a very dark brown color with a finger of khaki head. Smells sweet, plenty of caramel and lots of vanilla. Taste follows the nose, lots of sweetness, caramelized sugar, and that vanilla coming through loud and clear. Just a hint of toasted malt. Lots of flavor, but not a lot of roast, and very little bitterness. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, creamy, and chewy. It has that creamy milk stout feel from the lactose. Well carbonated. Overall, could perhaps use a little more balance (it's very sweet), but on the other hand, this is my kinda stout and a great dessert beer. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 9.1% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 5/11/13.

More BIF goodies to come, though alas, no more Lakewood. Naturally, they make a bourbon barrel aged version of this, and I'd be curious to see if that sweetness dominates or if the rich oak character would tone it down some. Could go either way. Of course, I'll most likely never see that beer, but still, would be interesting.

Prairie Somewhere

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So far, most of my beer trades (which I can count on one hand) have been with people I already "knew" in some way, mostly from interacting on each others blogs. But if you head over to Beer Advocate or Rate Beer and hit up their trading forums, you'll see a veritable cornucopia of stranger-on-stranger trading. This is a realm I've not really gotten into too much, and it's probably not something I'll pursue heavily, but there is a variant of the typical 1 on 1 trade called a "BIF".

BIF stands for Beer It Forward, and it's kinda like a secret santa, but with beer and without the holidays. Basically, you sign up for a BIF, get assigned a target, then send them a box full of beer. There's always a set of minimum requirements or a theme that you have to meet, and the general idea is that everyone ships (and probably receives) their boxes around the same time (there are several variants of this process - what I've described here is called a "shotgun BIF"). Everyone knows who they are sending their beer to, but no one knows who is sending them beer. There's a thread where people drop hints and try to guess who their sender is, and eventually everyone posts their hauls their too.

My target was in Chicago and we've already talked about future trades so that I can get my grubby hands on more Three Floyds awesomeness. My sender was from Texas, so I got me a cache of Texas (and other local environs) beers. The highlights, to my mind, were a few Saint Arnold beers, and three Prairie sour farmhouse ales (my sender correctly deduced that I was a saison/sour fan), the first of which I opened this past weekend. Prairie seems to be making the rounds of late, and I get the impression that these sours aren't distributed as far and wide as their regular stuff. This one is a sour farmhouse ale and a collaboration with Saint Somewhere. Check it:

Prairie Somewhere

Prairie Somewhere - Pours a cloudy golden color with a couple fingers of bubbly head. Smells of musty Belgian yeast, sweet and spicy, and just a little farmhouse funk. Taste starts sweet and very spicy, a light sourness pervading the taste throughout, finishing with a tart lemony kick. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated, spicy, crisp, refreshing, relatively dry. Overall, rock solid sour farmhouse beer here. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a goblet on 5/11/13.

A decent first impression from Prairie, and I've got two more of their sours that will probably be popped open in the coming weeks. Expect some Texas locals to start showing up on the blog as well, including one tomorrow and probably some of that Saint Arnold stuff next week.

Santa Fe Kickin' Chicken

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So this wound up being another infected beer that I'm going to dump on, not quite as bad as the Tot Taint, but still not very good. And yes, I suppose that's ironic considering I just praised an intentionally infected beer, but those Cantillon folks know what their doing. These Santa Fe guys must have done a little too much meth and let their bourbon barrel barleywine get infected. I'm sure there'd probably be a way to salvage this beer (perhaps involving further barrel aging and additional wild beasty doses), but it seems that they left that task up to us, which leads to glorious nonsense like DDB's solution to the problem:

Man, that looked super chunky and gross... but I'm not sure it would be that much worse than the infected beer itself. The worst part is that if it weren't infected, I'd probably love this beer. As it is, I had a rough time getting through my first glass and didn't even bother with the rest of the bottle.

Santa Fe Kickin Chicken Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine

Santa Fe Kickin' Chicken Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine - Pours a turgid, murky brown color with half a finger of light tan head. Smells of caramel, toffee, dark fruits, not a lot of that barrel in the nose, but nothing that screams infection either. Taste starts off with a rich caramel sweetness that gradually gives way to a slight vinegary sourness and wild tang which lasts through the finish. Yep, this is definitely infected. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, thin in the way some sours are thin, acidic, unpleasantly abrasive. The richness yields to the infection and the sourness lingers through the aftertaste. Overall, it's not very good! D

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (22 oz waxed bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 5/10/13. Bottled 3/8/13.

This beer actually came to me via Texas in a trade I should really explain more about (will probably do so tomorrow), so it's unlikely that I'll see these Santa Fe folks again. That being said, I'd love to try an uninfected version of this beer, as it seemed to tick the right checkboxes.

Cantillon Gueuze

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What a good way to start the weekend. After a long week at work, coming home to a bottle of Cantillon makes me want to pump my fist triumphantly like Judd Nelson. Don't you forget about me.

What? Oh yeah, beer. So this is Cantillon's straight up organic Gueuze. You know the drill: a blend of various ages of oak barrel conditioned lambic (usually involving 1, 2, and 3 year old spontaneously fermented beer). Cantillon sez this beer represents half of the production of the brewery and that when cellared properly (i.e. not how I do it!) it will still have "an exceptional taste and flavour after 20 years." Hard to believe that anyone can hold on to a bottle for that long, as this is classic stuff:

Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic-Bio

Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio - Pours a cloudy golden yellow color with a finger of tight white head and good retention. Smells of musty funk, yeast, a little oak, that twang that indicates sourness. Taste starts sweet, with some yeasty funk and spice hitting in the middle, followed by oak and a nice tart sourness intensifying through the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, smooth, some pleasant acidity that intensifies through the finish. Plenty of carbonation, a little more than 3F, but not as much as Tilquin. Overall, a fantastic, well balanced beer, not quite the revelation that the kriek was, but definitely on par with the best Gueuzes I've had. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5% ABV bottled (375 ml capped and corked). Drank out of an entirely too big Tired Hands glass on 5/10/13. Label sez: Bottled 3 December 2012.

I have a 750 of this in my cellar, but I can guarantee it won't last 20 years. Probably not even within an order of magnitude. Glad I'm starting with the simple stuff though. Not sure how much of a difference there is between this "Bio" stuff and the regular Classic Gueuze, but it's still damn good. Anywho, I get the feeling minds will be blown as I start to branch out into their fancier offerings. Stay tuned.

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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  • Mark: That's what I figured after the last release (which was read more
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