By John Foyston
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The Commons recently celebrated its fourth year as a brewery, not especially young by Portland standards, but still one of my favorite success stories thanks to its beginnings as Beetje – a one-man nanobrewery in owner Mike Wright's Southeast Portland garage.
Nowadays, The Commons is one of Portland's favorite Good Beer Hangouts. It occupies a 10,000-square-foot space, a windows-on-the world corner of Southeast Belmont Street. The building comprises a handsome, woody taproom, the original Commons brew system up front for display, the Cheese Annex serving artisan cheese and charcuterie, a 15-barrel JV Northwest production brewery in back and a crew of a dozen or more brewers and pubsters. It's three times larger than the previous location – and about 50 times larger than the garage in which Wright started Beetje Brewing in 2009.
Yes, other breweries have traced similar or steeper trajectories – Ninkasi, of course, which became a national player in less than a decade; Breakside, which quickly outgrew its brewpub beginnings to add a big new production brewery; Fort George, which now inhabits an entire block of downtown Astoria; Cascade, which brought sour beer to national prominence; and others.
But The Commons is a story I know well, having followed it since the garage days, and Mike Wright's philosophy is one that describes why I – and a lot of you, I suspect – love craft beer: “The important thing is not the beer itself, but the interaction and socializing that happen around good beer,” he said when he made the considerable leap from garage to industrial space; from a cobbled-together, 1-barrel nanobrewery to a professional, 7-barrel brewhouse; and from a one-man show to being an employer with a cellarman and brewer Sean Burke.
It wasn't until September of 2012 that he quit his day job, perhaps thinking back to what he said at Beetje (Flemish for “little bit” and a tribute to his wife Kaatje, who was born in the Flemish town of Roeselare) – “I know I won’t be supporting my family with the amount of beer I can make in my garage,” he said in a 2010 interview, “but I'm having fun and making beers that I want to make.”
“At the risk of being too romantic,” he said back then, “imagine a small, rustic farmhouse brewery in the inner city. The beers are everyday-drinking beers, not super-complex, monster bombs. Plenty of breweries make those. I enjoy spending time with friends and good food, and drinking a sessionable beverage is the driving force behind the beers I make.”
That philosophy was at the heart of The Commons, with its motto of “Gather around beer,” and was the reason that its tasting room was one of Portland's favorites — an intimate, woody space tucked away in the corner of a handsomely revamped industrial space, which had high ceilings, brick walls, tall windows and barrel-aging racks. It was a one-of-kind space, where patrons could drink in the brewery. People loved it, but it wasn't ideal: “It was a little too integrated with the brewery,” Wright said in 2014. “We could either brew beer or have the tasting room open, but not both. I had brewers all the time who asked, 'How did you guys get away with having the tasting room in the brewery?' And the truth is, we got lucky – it’d never get approved again.”
The new tasting room has a nearly identical feel thanks to lots of honest, unadorned wood, high ceilings, concrete floors, the original 7-barrel brewhouse up front and sightlines into the production brewery, but barriers now separate the spaces. “We wanted to recreate the aesthetic of our first tasting room on a bigger scale,” said Wright. “We want to keep people connected with the brewery, because there's nothing better than having people here enjoying your beer.”
Mission accomplished: the new brewery taproom opened in late March 2015, just in time for the thousands of professional brewers who trekked to Portland for the Craft Brewers Conference last April, and it has since become a favorite spot for townies and tourists alike looking for a pint of that brilliant Urban Farmhouse Ale, or Myrtle, or their beautiful Pils.
And those 13 taps are pouring a LOT of Commons beer these days. “We actually have walk-in customers now,” Wright says, “the old location was a true destination type place – only people who knew about us would visit. While that has a certain cachet for some, it wasn't a sustainable business model. We love the opportunity to introduce our beer to new people and the high-profile location offers us many more opportunities to do that. The new, purpose-built cellar and added storage have made a world of difference on the production side of the equation.”
The production side is well served. There was a day last February when the JV Northwest crew rolled up with a brewery on a truck and brewer Burke knew he could soon trade the tool belt he'd worn during months of build-out for his brewer rubber boots.
“They showed up at 7 a.m. with trucks and 12 hours later they had it mostly installed,” said Burke, who was excited as only a brewer can be about the versatility of the system. “I asked for a list of things and I got every one of them. We can do straight mashes, step mashes, decoction mashes, turbid mashes — the system is amazingly flexible. JV Northwest really delivered on the engineering, plus I think they wanted a showcase system on their home turf.”
Great beer, a coherent vision and the unassuming, homey feel of the tasting room make The Commons a true Portland gem: “Portland has a rich pub culture where consumers desire variety and a broad range of flavors,” Wright said. “That allows a niche brewery like The Commons to exist and thrive because we provide an alternative to Portland's many hop-forward beers. Could I have guessed we'd be here today when you and I met in the garage? No! No way. I had no idea the business would be where it is today. It's really amazing and gratifying to where we are. I'm very lucky.”
So is Portland, Mr. Wright, so is Portland.
By John Foyston
For the Oregon Beer Growler
You could fairly call the Oregon Pint — an elegant beer glass with a geographically accurate Mount Hood molded in the base — a runaway success.
Last February, Matt and Leigh Capozzi and Nic Ramirez of North Drinkware went to Kickstarter to raise $15,000 to buy the tools and material to produce their dream glass, which Matt Capozzi said was originally intended to be a fun little side project. Apparently the public didn't know that because the Kickstarter campaign met its initial goal in five hours and 15 minutes, according to the North Drinkware website.
“We initially figured that some people will want a handcrafted beer glass,” says Capozzi, “and then as things took off, we asked ourselves, 'what if things go really crazy and we raise $50,000 or $100,000?'”
The answer would be, you start making glasses … a LOT of glasses, because the campaign raised more than half a million bucks from 5,600 investors.
Now, $45 seems like a lot of money for a beer container — that is, until you watch a team of artisans transform a blob of incandescent glass into a beautiful, robust vessel. The process starts in the hot shop of their production partners, Elements Glass in the industrial area of Northwest Portland. It starts with the gather — Karlye Golub pokes a four-foot-long blow pipe into a furnace to get a blob of 1,500-degree molten glass from the crucible. How big a blob? “That's the thing.” says Matt Capozzi, “There's no set recipe — these people are doing it all by feel and experience.”
The blowpipe is then cooled in water so it can be handled and Karlye blows a small bubble into the glass, after which it's heated again before marvering — preliminary rolling and shaping on a heavy, flat steel plate called a marver. She hands the blowpipe to Aaron Frankel, who runs the shop, and he continues to shape and expand the bubble while periodically putting the blowpipe into the roaring furnace, which keeps the glass from cooling too much and shattering.
Satisfied, he steps on a low platform and inserts the glass into a heated cylindrical steel mold at his feet while Alissa Friedman swings the mold doors shut. Frankel blows into the pipe, forcing the glass into the mold. He taps his foot when experience tells him he's done, Friedman opens the guillotine doors and together, they separate the glass from the blowpipe. They'll repeat this closely choreographed dance of molten glass about 150 times in a good day — more than 550 times in a week, given vagaries of weather, humidity and temperature, all of which affect the process.
Not that the newborn glass is near ready to receive its beer baptism. First it spends a night cooling in the annealing oven. Then it goes to the cold shop, where it's scored, then placed on a heavy, round table where a micro torch heats the score and separates the top inch or so of the glass, which goes to the scrap bin. A bigger torch then melts the sharp scored edge into a generous rounded rim and the glass goes back into the annealing oven.
A day or so later, you can finally pour a beer into it and watch Mount Hood come alive in the golden light. And you understand what Capozzi means when he says, “People pour their heart and soul into making great beer these days, and we wanted to give craft beer drinkers a glass that we poured our heart and souls into designing and making.”
He and his North Drinkware partners — wife Leigh, and Ramirez, who's a colleague at Portland-based branding/product studio Cinco Design, initially came up with the idea for the Oregon Pint last year. “Mount Hood is perfect,” says Matt Capozzi, “because it symbolizes all of Oregon." They soon will release another state pint for Washington, California, Colorado or Vermont — my bet's on Mount Rainier. And once they catch up with the 13,000 or so Oregon Pints promised to investors, and they're well on the way, the glass will be available online at northdrinkware.com and at Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood Meadows and MadeHere PDX.
It's a great idea, but it was a long way away from full-fledged production last year. The trio started prototyping at night with plaster molds and different production methods. (They'll keep their careers — Capozzi and Ramirez are industrial designers and Leigh Capozzi is in marketing — despite the vivid success of North Drinkware.) The molds are a good example of how Kickstarter made the dream possible. Clearly, plaster molds were a temporary expedient, but when they switched to graphite, they found the molds also wore out rapidly. The current machined steel mold is holding up well, but it's about the eighth mold they've made — at about $8,000 a copy. And that’s why crowdfunding has proved invaluable.
“Kickstarter has been just that.” says Matt Capozzi, “We couldn't have done this on our own. This project has taken over our lives in a way, but in a good way, because we're good at balancing work and life, and I have great partners.”
By the time we get to the proof of the pint — splitting a bottle of pFriem Pilsner between two Oregon Pints, Capozzi is once again watching the dance in the hot shop. “It's mesmerizing,” he says. “I could watch them blowing glass all day. It's like watching snow fall in the mountains — you just can't look away.”
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In today’s fast-paced industry, it’s easy to forget that the modern craft beer revolution hasn’t even hit middle age yet. At Oregon State University, the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives (OHBA), the first brewing archive in the U.S., saves and shares the story of hop production and the craft brewing movement in Oregon.
“We do this by collecting historical materials, conducting oral histories, sharing best practices for maintaining records and assisting with historical research,” explains Tiah Edmunson-Morton, main curator for OHBA (she also blogs about her work at thebrewstorian.tumblr.com). “In line with OSU's land-grant mission, this archive focuses on local agricultural, business and heritage communities, connecting OSU to the much larger story of brewing and hop growing in our region.”
Located on the fifth floor of The Valley Library at OSU, OHBA began in summer 2013 as part of the OSU Libraries & Press’ Special Collections and Archives Research Center. Edmunson-Morton works closely with staff in OSU Special Collections and Archives, the digital production unit and library administration. A student worker aids with research and a graphic design student recently designed a beer history board game.
Edmunson-Morton has collected oral histories from notable figures such as McMenamins’ historian Tim Hills along with beer writers John Foyston and the late Fred Eckhardt. Current projects include scanning brew sheets for the first 2,000 brews at McMenamins Hillsdale, Cornelius Pass Roadhouse and Fulton breweries. Portland Brewing’s Fred Bowman granted access to news clippings about the early years of Portland Brewing, as well as photos showing the remodel of the building at the original Northwest Flanders Street location in advance of the brewery’s opening in 1986. OHBA is also collaborating with the Multnomah County Library on “Portland Brew History,” a digital exhibit featuring materials from 15 breweries.
“I feel so lucky to be working on something so fun and culturally/scientifically significant,” says Edmunson-Morton.
University, Industry Are Key Partners
It’s only natural that OHBA is part of OSU. The Corvallis public university is renowned for its hops breeding, brewing research and Fermentation Science program. Edmunson-Morton works closely with all of them, as well as the beer and cider sessions staff in Professional and Continuing Education to discover and procure new materials and stories.
In addition to oral histories with hop growers, OHBA has records from the Oregon Hop Growers Association and the Hop Research Council and is reviewing hops industry photos and research reports from the 1920s-1950s. Edmunson-Morton has collaborated with the Benton County Historical Society to convert tapes of oral histories with pickers and growers from the early 1980s. “We also scanned a set of questionnaires from that same oral history project,” she says. “That give a really interesting insight into the conditions in the fields in the 1930s.”
OHBA also sources documents and histories through newspapers and other periodicals, such as Zymurgy and The Amateur Brewer, as well as newspapers. “I’d like to continue to collect research files, pictures and publications from beer writers,” says Edmunson-Morton. “We are also looking at expanding the archive to more actively highlight and collect materials related to barley. Who knows? This may lead to a name change if we include yeast too.”
The Art of Beer
Rep. Peter DeFazio and OSU President Ed Ray were among the first to come to OHBA’s opening day for “The Art of Beer: What’s on the Outside.” Celebrating the work of brewers and artists in Oregon through beer labels, the public walk-through exhibition was planned to be open during April and May 2015, but instead closed at the end of July.
With items dating back to the early 1980s, The Art of Beer showed that labels are more than just marketing or advertising. “While the range of art on labels and coasters itself was important,” says Edmunson-Morton, “I also wanted to look at identity, branding, the process of creating art and the simple artistry that goes into … such a small bit of visual real estate.”
Beer labels are a snapshot, she explains: telling customers about the company, the taste or style of beer, the experience you are likely to have. “They are also connecting with consumers as artists, creating something beautiful and evocative,” says Edmunson-Morton. “When you saw the bottles on store shelves or labels on tap handles you were picking up clues about the beer, the brewery, etc. But when you saw those labels enlarged on a wall, they turned into something much more: art.”
However, a sort of meta-exhibition was also at work. Archivists and curators “make choices about what you see, labeling items to categorize them, grouping them with other items, and asking the viewer to consider and examine them in a constructed way,” says Edmunson-Morton. “Advertisers work in the same way by inviting you to draw a quick meaning and conclusions based on what is on the outside, and then asking you to make a decision and interpretation about what’s inside.”
A Community-Based Archive
While of interest to brewing hobbyists, professionals and academics, the archive is also part of the public’s awareness about the history of a vibrant modern industry. “People don't know how interesting and important what they have is, or think the posters they produced three years ago aren't historic,” says Edmunson-Morton. “With an archive like this, three years ago is certainly history!”
OHBA is actively asking the public, brewing industry, and homebrewing community to contribute new materials, such as photographs, news clippings, publications, books, recipes, coasters, taplists, menus, and/or any records for breweries and hop growing operations.
“The way an archive grows is by adding materials, but the way we save a history is by sharing it and telling its story,” says Edmunson-Morton. “I want this to be a community-based archive, which means that we collect materials that tell the story of the cultural and industrial communities, but also the story by the communities. It's not just my story to tell.”
Questions, donations and contributions:
Tiah Edmunson-Morton, OHBA Curator
541-737-7387 / email@example.com
Visit the Archives:
Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Valley Library Fifth Floor, Oregon State University
By John Foyston
I've been banging this drum for a few years now — that the corporate owners of Pyramid and Portland Brewing are squandering valuable, historic brands by running them by remote control, as it were, from corporate offices far away from here.
Recently, I got to meet Rob Rentsch, the new Portland-based general manager of Pyramid and Portland Brewing, whose job it is to restore the luster to a couple of great Northwest brands and make them a vital part of our craft beer community again. I think he's just the man for the job.
We met in the beer garden off the Portland Brewing Taproom over pints of fresh-hop Mac's Amber, and Rentsch — tieless in an open-collar white shirt — told me of his career in the beverage business, which includes stints with high-end wine and spirits distributors as a brand manager for tipples as varied as The Macallan whisky and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. He and his family moved to Portland eight years ago and he worked most of that time at Craft Brew Alliance, where he helped reinvigorate the Red Hook brand and develop the CBA portfolio.
“I love craft beer,” he said. “That's where I'm staying because it's the most dynamic part of the beverage industry. My job as general manager of Pyramid and Portland Brewing is to restore the luster of those heritage brands in an ever-more competitive marketplace and to make them vital parts of the Northwest craft brewing community again.”
The brands are lackluster performers in the current market for a couple of reasons. Pyramid Brewing bought Portland Brewing in 2004, and was subsequently bought by Magic Hat Brewing, then North American Breweries in 2010. Which was bought in 2012 by the Costa Rican company, Florida Ice & Farm Co., so it's easy to see how two Northwest brands could get lost in that shuffle.
“The business has had multiple owners and multiple strategies over the last few years,” Rentsch said, “and the brands were run from places other than Seattle or Portland.”
Rentsch, whose office is in the Portland brewery, says the exciting part for him is that this new general manager position signals the desire to run the brands from their home base. “For the past few years, Pyramid and Portland Brewing have been largely silent — we haven't had a place at the table. I want to restore the greatness of these heritage brands because you can't buy or manufacture that kind of history.”
He acknowledges that laurels are nothing to be rested upon in the current market, which worships the latest/greatest/hoppiest/oakiest/sourest/newest/most extreme beers and breweries, but he's confident that there's room for reinvigorated Pyramid and Portland Brewing brands, and recent beers such as Pyramid's Lord Alesworth English-Style Royal Ale affirm that the brew crew is more than up to the task. “We can't just look back, we have to be relevant to today's markets and consumers,” he said, “a bit like Porsche: the first 911 was from the 1960s, but modern Porsches are still identifiable as an evolution of that basic form.
“I want to acknowledge our history and heritage and become an ongoing part of Portland beer history as it’s developing now. We have great beers, great people and a great culture that will help us do that. There's a real drive and excitement about becoming more involved with our craft beer community again.”
And Rentsch is staying in Portland, which he says feels like home after years on the East Coast. He's even commuting by bicycle out to industrial Northwest from his Southeast Portland home ... “But ask me how that's going when February rolls around,” he laughed.
By John Foyston
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Even a cursory survey of why Portland is a great beer city turns up Fred Eckhardt's name — which was actually Otto Frederick Eckhardt, though I never heard anyone call him Otto — early and often. Eckhardt died peacefully of congestive heart failure at his North Portland home August 10, three months after the death of his partner of 60 years, Jimmy Takita. “He wasn't in much pain,” said friend and caregiver Tom Reese. “He just ran out of steam and went to sleep.” Eckhardt was 89, and the beer world he helped build will never be the same without him.
He helped foment the good beer revolution by educating brewers and beer drinkers with his books, columns and monthly tastings. His pioneering "A Treatise on Lager Beers" educated thousands of homebrewers in the late 1960s, and he and homebrew guru Charlie Papazian started America brewing.
His beer columns for The Seattle Times and The Oregonian talked about good beer back when most beer was pale gold, flavorless and brewed in large factories. Of course, as he put it, he was just writing about beer to inspire the fledgling craft brewers of the day to make something he wanted to drink so he would no longer have to write columns about Rainier Ale, aka "Green Death," a nickname partially inspired by color of the can.
He knew all about beer, about beer styles, about brewing techniques, about beer history, but the fact is that Fred Eckhardt was not a beer geek. Beer geeks rarely inspire and Fred did just that: He made Good Beer a club we all wanted to join, and having a pint with Fred was as much fun — and as educational — an afternoon as a person could ever hope to spend.
Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, where Fred wrote a regular column, put it this way: "Fred was the cosmic giggle of beer. Everything was filtered through Smedley, his imaginary alternate persona, who took nothing seriously and suffered no fools gladly. How did a World War II Marine morph into perhaps the earliest craft beer authority with his first publication in the late '60s when craft beer wasn't even a concept?
"He wrote about homebrewing 10 years before it was legal. We traveled together in the early ‘90s to raucous homebrewer events in southern California where I first experienced his amazing speaking style. Sly, witty, off the cuff and just plain hilarious, he left his audience both shaken and stirred. He wrote for Celebrator Beer News for many years to the chagrin of our uncompromising copy editor. 'Dean of American Beer Writers?' she'd scream. Together we'd turn his disparate rants into something resembling English and the beer enthusiasts loved it. He was Fred. And there is a huge hole in the beer cosmos that will never be filled."
Eckhardt was a U.S. Marine in World War II and Korea, a photographer and a swim instructor well before he was a beer guru. His epiphany came with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s: If the nukes did hit the fan, as seemed likely at the time, the post-apocalypse world would have little need for either swimming instructors or guys who took portraits of cute babies.
He remembered when he was a Marine, the mess sergeant always had a still going within hours of hitting the beach. "That sergeant was much loved," Eckhardt said, "and I realized people who make booze always are." That's when he set out to teach himself and others how to brew at home and take beer back from the mega breweries that had made it a bland, fizzy commodity.
Check with almost any American craft brewer or homebrewer and you'll likely find a copy of Eckhardt's groundbreaking "A Treatise on Lager Beers" (1969) and his "The Essentials of Beer Style" (1989) on the book shelves — and maybe even a copy of his 1992 book “Sake (U.S.A.)” on the history and technique of sake brewing.
He also wrote hundreds of columns for beer magazines around the world, as well as a newsletter for craft beer fans, "Listen to Your Beer," and for homebrewers, "Talk to Your Beer."
"It's important to remember that Fred was a voice alone in a sea of boring beer," says Alan Sprints of Hair of the Dog. "When breweries were closing or consolidating and beer was becoming more bland, Fred urged people to look for beer with real flavor. He was the spark that helped ignite the craft beer revolution."
"Fred will be missed by both all of us fortunate enough to have known him," said Carl Singmaster of the pioneering Portland bottle shop, Belmont Station, "and by those who never were so lucky, but who benefited from his championing what has come to be called craft beer.”
Karl Ockert was the first brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing and made his first homebrew from a recipe out of Fred's book. “When we were preparing the BridgePort brewery in 1984, Fred came over to check us out,” said Ockert, who's now with Deschutes Brewery. “I was awestruck to meet him. He was so kind and disarming you could not help but embrace him. Once we got the brewery running he came by with an old golf bag carrying his camera gear and in between liberal beer sampling, proceeded to shoot the BridgePort brewhouse in its primitive glory. I remember him wobbling out the door later that afternoon, cautioning Matt Sage and I about the dangers of working in a brewery and over-imbibing on the job. We were in our 20s and indestructible, but I was scared to death he wouldn’t make it home.”
Fred as mentor and inspiration is part of his outsized influence.
"It's such a loss that words seem irrelevant at best," said Mike McMenamin. "Fred was the complete package and a very funny one at that. As beginning brewers, he wanted to know what we were doing and, most importantly, why we were doing it. He was willing to taste whatever we were into, whether it be spirits, wine, beer, et cetera and find something positive to say about it even if there might not have been much to merit it. Fred was a great friend and mentor to us, along with his partner Jim Takita, who together were one of the world's great treasures. Fare thee well!"
Kurt Widmer of Widmer Brothers Brewing credits one of Fred's beer columns in The Oregonian for inspiring him to become a brewer. "Fred was always an enthusiastic member of the brewing community,” Widmer said. "Whenever he wrote for local or national publications, he invariably found positive things to say. I don't recall Fred ever writing an unkind review of any craft brewer, and that was so helpful to us in the earliest days when we were so desperately striving for awareness and credibility among local beer drinkers.
"On a personal note, it was one of Fred's columns in The Oregonian that inspired me to take up home brewing 36 years ago. Fred also continued to be a fan of our Altbier even though it seemed a bit much for local beer drinkers. He was a great guy to have a beer with and I will miss him."
The Widmer brothers repaid the favor: In his wallet, Fred Eckhardt carried the only “free Widmer beer for life” card that ever was or ever will be issued.
In 1997, Alan Sprints began brewing a beer called Fred in honor of his mentor. "Fred has been a big influence on my life, both in the beer world and as an example of how to be a good person," said Sprints. "His outgoing and compassionate personality, his desire to share his knowledge with others has made me a little better person. He inspired me to brew Adam (the first Hair of the Dog beer and based on a historical recipe Eckhardt found) and to create a brewery that is not afraid to be unique and different. I will miss his stories, his ability to wander through related subjects and still come back to the point, but most of all, I'll miss his smile. Cheers to you, Otto."
Sprints brings up a salient point. Fred was a Buddhist at heart, and he lived perhaps the most joyful life of any I've ever been privileged to know. He was happy, exuberant, irreverent, interested in everything, humble and above all, kind; and that's the legacy for us to perpetuate.
"Yesterday's news about Fred's passing brought me much sadness," said Chip Walton who did a fine interview with Fred for Brewing TV, "but also a great night remembering how awesome Fred was and how important he was and still is to the homebrewing/craft brewing world. My heart breaks for you, Fred's family and friends, Portland and all of American craft beer for our collective loss. May we hear Fred's laughter with every beer we enjoy."
Fred the Buddhist would want that; he'd want us to laugh with friends and enjoy the bounties of this beautiful world; and good beer, good friends, good stories, heartfelt laughter and a good long life well lived are chief among those bounties. Which is why Fred Eckhardt will remain an inspiration to all who knew him. Maybe we can even aspire to living in Fred's world, Tom Dalldorf said.
"I've pretty much given up on giving Fred assignments," Dalldorf said several years before Fred's death, "because he writes on whatever interests him and ignores the tedious requests of unenlightened editors. That's why we call his column 'Fred's World.' He's comfortable in it, and you can only hope that someday he invites you in as well. It's a pretty cool place to be."
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