Tag Archives: hops

Hops letterpress print

Humulus luplus letterpress, R Frost

Beer is mostly water. But through the magic of Saccharomyces cerevisiae consuming sugars provided by malted grains, that water becomes something wonderful. While the malt provides a lot of the body and the flavour of the beer, it’s with the addition of hops that beers become truly exciting in their varied characters.

The hop plant is Humulus lupulus, a native of Eurasia that’s quite possibly been associated with booze since the 6th century BCE (check out this PDF) but has been cultivated extensively, resulting in an incredible range of aromas and tastes.

What you can do with hops is really something to be celebrated, which is just what Russell Frost has done with this new print from his Hooksmith letterpress operation.

Russell, an old friend from New Zealand and a fellow fan of decent real beer, explains, “The type face is allegedly a hand-cut early Chromatic Victorian (meaning for two-colour printing)  known as an ‘ornamented grot'” Strangely, as “grot” is either short for grotto or grotty: these letters are neither.*

Russell has an extensive collection of vintage equipment as his operation in east London. For those who know their letterpress, his site says, “Presses include an Adana 8×5 platen and several proofing presses including a Farley, Stephenson Blake, Vandercook14 and a Vandercook SP15.”

Type. From Hooksmith

As for the ornamented grot used here, Russell says, “I came by it after a serious amount of hunting and it was sold to me by a collector who bought it off another collector in the 1980s.”

Great stuff. I particularly like how the decorative top tips of the letters reflect the pointed shape of the hop flower petals, as seen in this picture taken by a chap called Duncan Harris (thanks Duncan) and posted in his stream on Flickr:

Duncan Harris, Hops

Oh, and Russell, being an educated man and the son of a botanist, knows that it’s a no-no to capitalise scientific nomenclature (that is, put HUMULUS LUPULUS when it should always be Humulus lupulus or at a push H. lupulus), but it’s such a great font it’s justified by artistic license.



* Russell says “grot” is just short for “grotesque”, which makes sense. Grotesque doens’t just mean ugly or hideous, it originally referred to a decorative style that was inspired by ancient Roman decorative styles (re-) discovered during the Renaissance and featured bizarre, stylised animal and plant forms. Grotesque, grotto and grotty all have the same etymology – the Italian word grotta, cave, which comes from the Latin crypta (as in crypt) meaning underground passage or chamber. The 16th century artists who developed the grottesca / grotesque style had, for example, explored the buried rooms of places like Nero’s Golden Palace, which in the Middle Ages was largely lost and buried under the cumulative filth and silt of decades of neglect in Rome.





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Birra del Borgo’s BdBi(g)BodyIBU at No.Au, Centro Storico, Rome

Birra del Borgo's BdBi(g)BodyIBU at No.Au, Centro Storico, Rome

Back at No.Au again the other night, one of our favourite little places in Rome’s Centro Storico (and in Ponte, rione V, if you read my last postʼs comments about the different Roman neighbourhoods).

One of the beers I was introduced to by the always friendly and helpful girls who work there has perhaps the most impossible name I’ve ever encountered. It’s Birra del Borgoʼs BdBi(g)BodyIBU.

The name, apparently, is a play on Disney-Cinderella’s “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” song, but once you get past its strange coding – which is easier to read than say, after a few pints, in a mixture of Italian and English – its implications are clear.

Birra del Borgo's BdBi(g)BodyIBU

This is a Birra del Borgo (BdB) experiment in making a bitter beer with a serious IBU, that is a high International Bittering Units figure. The brewery site says, “Its main feature is the massive use of hop, a mix of different varieties that gives an extraordinary aroma and a remarkable bitter side, with 100 IBU.

If you check out the handy table (below), other 100 IBU beer include Russian Imperial Stout, Imperial IPA and American Barleywine. Most beers clock less than 50 IBU.

And yet, surprisingly perhaps, it is a really balanced beer, not simply defined by its bitterness or its strength (7.1% ABV). It has a nice copper-red colour, middling head, and fruity aromas, with some grape and wine-iness. Taste-wise, it is bitter, yes, but also very malty, with a nice broad cereal flavour.

Very pleasant drinking alongside our vast antipasti platters of cheeses and salumi (cured meats).

IBU International Bittering Units chart

No.Au, Piazza di Montevecchio 16A, 00186, Rome
No.Au blog / noauroma@gmail.com / 06 45 65 27 70

Birra del Borgo brewery (English site)

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Lambrate’s Ortiga golden ale at Birrifugio, Portuense, Rome

Dark Star Revelation and Lambrate Ortiga, Birrifugio

We finally made it to another of Rome’s beer bars the other day: Birrifugio. It’s a place we’ve passed many a time, when we’ve been feeling like a 6pm beer but it’s run along Roman beer bar hours, not opening until 7.30pm. It’s one of the self-styled “6 historic pubs of the capital”1. It’s also styled as “Birrifugio Trastevere” on the business cards and website. Except it’s not in Trastevere.

Trastevere is one of the city’s rioni, neighbourhoods that were mostly established in medieval Rome. Apart from Prati, the area north of the Vatican, these rioni are all within the 3rd century Aurelian Walls. Birrifugio – whose name is a nice little pun, “beer-refuge” – is just off Viale Trastevere, but about a kilometer outside the walls, which cut across the boulevard at the Ministry of Education.

The hospitality industry does like to be liberal with its definition of Trastevere, as it’s such a popular area, with its narrow cobbled streets hung with laundry, churches, restaurants and whatnot. But no, Birrifugio is firmly esconced in the postwar urbanisation between the Viale and the Tiber, in the same area as Sunday’s sprawling Porta Portese market So what is this area?

It’s something that’s bugged me for ages, as we live just up the hill and traverse it often en route to Testaccio etc. We just resorted to calling it “that triangle”. But apparently it’s technically within Portuense, which isn’t a rione, it’s a quartiere. This name – “quarter” –  is used for some of the districts that developed with the urban sprawl of the 20th century.

Sorry, I had to get that straight. But the point is, if you go looking for Birrifugio, it’s not a pub in the depths of cutesy Trastevere like Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà? It’s in a very different neighbourhood –  but is no less decent a bar.

Birrifugio beer menu

Indeed, we arrived just as it was opening and the barman was immediately friendly and helpful. He gave us menus, talked us through the beers, both in the menu and on the blackboard, and chatted about his recent trip to a beer festival in London.

Unlike, say, Open Baladin or No.Au, Birrifugio (and its sister bar in Ostia) doesn’t have a great emphasis on Italian products. Instead, it has an international selection, on this occasion including brews from Belgian, England, etc. It also has a fairly comprehensive food menu, including Roman favourites and a more diverse choice: wurst, goulash, crêpes, sauerkraut. And something listed as “fish & chips”…

As the place feels not unlike a British pub (albeit a fairly modern one fitted out to feel a bit olde), I went for the latter. Just cos. It wasn’t really fish and chips in the proper sense (that, really, can only be done well in Britain or NZ, in my experience), and nor was the fish filetto di baccalà, the traditional Roman battered salt cod that is actually fairly similar to British chippie fish. It was instead a crumbed affair, probably from frozen. But no matter: the antipasti we had, speck rolled around mozzarella and walnut and served with a sauce made with a lot of mustard and weiss beer, was clearly freshly made and delicious. As was Fran’s burger, again handmade.

Birrifugio taps

But we weren’t really there for the food, we were there for the beer

I had the only Italian beer they had on tap, and Fran went for a Revelation from Dark Star. This is a brewery in West Sussex, in the south of England, not far from where we may well be living next year. Revelation is a seriously hoppy APA style ale. My beer on the other hand was an Ortiga from Lambrate brewery in Milan.

This is an immediately likeable, easy-drinking 5% ABV golden ale (“in stile English golden Ale“), one of those top-fermented beers that could open a whole new world up to lager drinkers. It’s a bright, clear orange-yellow colour. It’s made with pilsner and crystal malt. It’s got a light, fresh aroma, slightly piney, slightly citrusy, but nothing very strong, and a flavour that’s similarly fresh and very crisp.

It’s got a clean, dry mouthfeel, and is very hoppy at the end. I can’t state with certainty which hops are used though. Lambrate’s site doesn’t say, and other sources aren’t entirely in agreement. It’s either Aurora and Cascade (according to the Guida alle birre d’Italia 2013) or Aurora and Styrian Golding (according to Ratebeer). Ratebeer also says it’s dry hopped, which really sounds about right.

Lambrate Ortiga label

It’s a pity I didn’t know about this brewery when we visited Milan last year, as it’s got a brewpub and another bar in the Lambrate district of the city, and the Guida has a quote that says the former is “probably the best brewpub in Italy”.

Oh, and Lambrate’s beers have great labels too. They’re designed by an artist called Roger Webber, whose work can be seen here. I sort of get the text2 on Ortiga’s comic strip-style label, but when I Googled it for more info, I got a wiki page written in Lombàrt orientàl, that is East Lombardian, the language used in Milan and thereabouts. Considering I’m struggling enough with Standard Italian, this was a challenge. According to (English) Wikipedia, “Milanese and Italian are distinct Romance languages and are not mutually intelligible.” Or, as I’d probably prefer to phrase it, they’re mutually unintelligible.

So a friendly, professional beer (and whisky) bar, a pleasant beer, and a label with linguistic implications I don’t even want to think about too much.

Via Federico Rosazza 6, 00153 Roma
(+39) 06 5830 3189 | birrifugio.com | trastevere@birrifugio.com

(Also at Via Ferdinando Acton 18, 00122 Ostia)

Birrificio Lambrate
Brewpub Via Adelchi 5, 20131 Milano
Pub Via Golgi 60, 20133 Milano
Tel (+39) 02 70606746 | birrificiolambrate.com | birra@birrificiolambrate.com

1 It’s on a flyer I picked up at Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà? The six are: Ma Che, Birrifugio, Il Serpente (San Lorenzo), Le Bon Bock (Gianicolense), Mastro Titta (Ostiense), Treefolk’s (near the Colosseum).

2 The label says: “Faceva il palo nella banda dell ortica, ma era sguercio non ci vedeva quasi più ed è così che li hanno presi tutti senza fatica, li hanno presi tutti, quasi tutti tutti, fuorchè lui.” Which is standard Italian I think and means something like “He was on lookout duty for the Nettle Gang, but he was cross-eyed and he pretty didn’t see them [the cops], and just like that, they caught everyone without hassle, they took everyone, almost everyone, except him.” Or, in you prefer, in Milanese: “Faceva il palo nella banda de l’Ortiga, ma l’era sguercc, el ghe vedeva quasi pù, e l’è staa inscì che j’hann ciappaa senza fadiga, j’hann ciappaa tucc, ma proppi tucc, foeura che lù.” More info about the song here. In Milanese.

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Toccalmatto’s Oceania hoppy Saison

Toccalmatto Oceania hoppy saison

Another Toccalmatto with another crazy bit of label design, like Zona Cesarini but more especially B Space Invader. This time, the label seems to portray a strange fantasy Polynesian coconut-tiki-demon seizing a double-jointed (or even bone-less) hula dancer, like some King Kong riff.

Oceania isn’t actually on Toccalmatto’s site (here. Beware! Airbrushed goth babe), or in the Guida alle birre d’Italia 2013, but apparently it was created in 2011 as a one-shot but added to the range on the strength of a good response from punters.

The label calls it a “New World Hoppy Saison” in nice helpful English then expands: Birra doppia malta chiara, secca e beverina / Unisce speziatura classica delle Saison agli aromi dei luppoli Neozelandesi e Australiani / Birra di Alta Fermentazione – Rifermentata in Bottiglia. That is, “A double-malted clear beer, dry and drinkable / Uniting classic saison spiciness with the aroma of New Zealand and Australian hops / Top fermented – Bottle conditioned.”

Toccalmatto Oceania back label

The ingredients are water, malted barley, malted wheat, hops, sucrose, yeast. The sucrose is perhaps unexpected – you’d think with not one but two malts there would be enough sugars for the yeast, but adding more is presumably a factor in its fortification. Yep, it’s another strong beer: 7% ABV.

Some comments online also suggest adding sucrose to your brew can make it taste “cidery”, but others strongly refute this as a misconception that arose from poorly balance homebrew kit beers. This well-informed forum contributor, PseudoChef (a biochemist from Chicago), says: “Adding sugar to your recipe can be advantageous in that it helps ‘dry’ out the beer and thus reducing cloying body sweetness in some styles and accentuating hop bitterness in others.”

Certainly the Oceania is in no way cidery, and is indeed dry not sweet. Overall it’s another great beer from Toccalmatto.

Toccalmatto Oceania

It pours with a decent head. It has an odour of citrus (orange, grapefruit), fresh cut grass, fresh herbs growing in the sun (rather than, say, cut dried herbs or hay. Or is that getting a bit specific?). The body is medium-light, and colour is orangey-yellow and slightly cloudy. It’s well-carbonated, and has a tart, fruity flavour with touches of resin. Presumably from the hops, which in this case are New Zealand (Motueka, Pacific Jade) and Australian (Galaxy, Rakauand).

Finally, it has a fresh, crisp mouthfeel. Indeed, despite having something of that sweet-sour-spicy-fruity complexity you get with a good saison, it’s another lovely refreshing summer beer, and again one that’s so beverina (drinkable) it belies its strength.


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Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio’s Steamer at Tram Depot, Testaccio, Rome

Steamer beer at Tram Depot, Testaccio, Rome

We’ve been hanging out a lot in the hot August evenings at this (relatively) new place in Testaccio. It’s basically a converted kiosk on the pavement, like an old newsstand (edicola), but somehow it manages to be cool, charming and strangely mellow considering it’s right beside the busy crossroads of Via Marmorata and Via L Galvani/ Via M Gelsomini. There’s live DJ action with great tunes (hip hop, rare groove etc) on an evening, and the kiosk looks like a vintage tram coach to boot.

Its main appeal for Fran, Rachel and chums is the grattachecca. Grattare is the verb “to scrape, to scratch, to grate” and is a reference to the way a large block of ice is treated. At Tram Depot, a veteran grattachecca sensei in a bandana skilfully scrapes and grates the ice, fills a beaker, and pours over your choice of cordial. In this case, that means French Sirop de Monin. A few bits of fruit or fresh coconut complete the refreshing concoction.

It’s a relative of granita. Or, basically, a Roman Slush Puppy, given an extra classy twist with French cordials. Which use fewer artificial colours than Slush Puppy, but some of them still look a bit gaudy to be entirely natural. The Monin site says they’re “highly concentrated, natural flavourings” – no mention of natural colours. So I’m guessing there are some coal tar derivatives in some of them….

Piccolo Lab's Steamer, label, at Tram Depot, Testaccio

I can see the appeal of these alcohol-free ice drinks on a hot Roman summer’s day, but personally I’d rather have a beer. Tram Depot have one industrial lager on tap, but thankfully they also have a few bottled real beers. Among them is Steamer, a “hopped amber ale” created by brewer Lorenzo Bottoni that I’ve previously had at Necci. Though at Necci they had it on tap and it was comparatively flat. The bottles are markedly more carbonated.

The first time we had them, it had a massive comedy head. “Bad pour! Bad pour!” scolded my friend Stels, who was consuming a less troublesome grattacheccha. All three of us drinking the Steamer had the same Attack-of-the-Froth!

Steamer beer head

Stels told me about a technique for making the head subside. Rub a finger in the greasy crease alongside your nose and stick it in the foam. I’d never heard of this before, but she’s from New Jersey.

And yet, it works, after a fashion. Like putting soap in your bath foam, it makes the bubbles collapse. In the above pic, the orifice on the right with larger bubbles is where I stuck my finger.

The beer itself was still good. I wrote the other day after drinking Birrificio Math’s La 16 how I wasn’t entirely sold on Italian strong ales, but Steamer is pretty good stuff. It’s a lovely deep, misty amber colour, it’s pretty hoppy (it says 39.7 IBU, but it tastes like more) and it’s fairly darned strong (7.6%) but supped slowly on a summer’s evening is a great alternative to grattacheccha. Until someone invents beer grattachecca.

Tram Depot, via Marmorata (angolo Via Manlio Gelsomini), Testaccio, Rome
Open 8.30am (ish) to 2.00am, seven days a week.

Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio
piccololab.it / info@piccololab.it

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Toccalmatto brewery’s Zona Cesarini IPA

Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini

Zona Cesarini is another interesting beer from Toccalmatto brewery in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy. Before I leave Italy, I really want to try as many as possible of Toccalmatto’s beers, as I enjoyed their B Space Invader too. They’re not consistently available on tape in Rome though I have had a few at Open Baladin and otherwise I can score bottles from my friendly neighbourhood beer shop, Gradi Plato, which currently has eight outlets around the city.

“Zona Cesarini” is apparently a football term. Reading about it now is a double challenge for me as my Italian isn’t very good and because I don’t really give un fico about football, but it refers to pulling off something remarkable to win in the very last minutes of the game. (It’s named after Renato Cesarini who played for Juventus, as well as the national squads of the land of his birth, Italy, and the land of his upbringing, Argentina.)

Quite why a “Pacific India Pale Ale” that’s made with Japanese and New Zealand hops – the site says “Pacific Gem, Sorachi Ace, etc” – and features a label of potentially dubious political correctness, is named after a football term I don’t know. All I can say is that it’s a decent drink.

I found the aroma to feature notes of hay, or even silage, and elderflower. When I asked Fran what she thought, she said “turps?” I don’t think she meant it in a negative sense as such: real turpentine, after all, is derived from tree resin, notably from pines.

Its medium head dissolved fast and the taste was fruity and sharp, tending to sour. I liked this sourness, which was grapefruity. The other fruit I got was apricot. Fran didn’t contribute any further botanical-chemical comments.

The body is medium to light, the carbonation medium. Strength-wise, it’s another heavyweight (by UK standards) at 6.6% ABV, but the use of the hops here is more subtle than in the last strong Italian craft beer I drank.

According to Evan at the Ruling Glass, the Japanese Sorachi Ace hops are “known for having a fairly intense lemony flavor/aroma, along with herbal notes, lemongrass, lemon verbena, dill, cilantro [coriander], and tea. It can also provide a slight buttery taste that some people find problematic.” While according to Beer Legends, Pacific Gem “is known for having tones of oak and woody offsets.”

I didn’t get any of that here though. Indeed, if I had, it probably would have been a bit much, muddling the experience of an otherwise balanced beer, that even manages to play down its strength with a surprising mellowness.

Zona Cesarini and Oceania


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Ale in Holsworthy and Holsworthy Ales, Devon

Holsworthy Ales' Tamar Sauce, enjoyed in the Devon sun

Holsworthy, in northwest Devon, is a quiet little agricultural town, largely bypassed by the tourist hordes frequenting the coast 10 miles away. In days of yore, it was a significant market town, having been designated a “port” in the early middle ages. This is slightly confusing for an inland town, but in this older, Saxon sense port meant a safe place to trade.

Holsworthy had a railway line until 1966, when it was closed as part of the Beeching cuts. Some remnants of the railway route are in part being used today for Sustrans traffic-free routes, including the very handsome Derriton Viaduct. The Viaduct is one of the town’s key attractions. The other – for ale enthusiasts – is the beer scene, which is surprisingly vibrant for a town with a population of 2500-ish. Indeed, it’s one of those remarkable British towns with a pub every five yards.

The best beer pub is the Old Market Inn (or Olde Market). Lee, the publican, is welcoming, helpful and knowledgeable. He made a point of installing several handpumps and casks when he took over the pub several years ago, despite naysayers telling him he wouldn’t be able to sell real beer there.

Casks, Old Market Inn, Holsworthy, Devon

The Old Market went on to become North Devon CAMRA’s Pub of the Year 2010 to 2012 (it’s been pipped by the Ship and Pilot, Ilfracombe for the 2013 title). Lee also told me that he was chosen from among thousands to be accredited as one of the top 50 Guinness pubs in the UK although he says “I’m just doing what I’ve always done” – that is, keeping his beers properly. He even does his own beer call BOMB (“Best Old Market Bitter”), which he makes by dry hopping a beer supplied by a local brewery. He couldn’t say which though! He’s also started trying to further the beer education of his punters by stocking a fridge with bottled “Beers of the World”.

When I’m in the Old Market, however, I tend to stick with the most local option possible: which means brews from Holsworthy Ales. On this trip I made a point of sampling more of its spring and summer products, brewed just outside Holsworthy in Clawton. The microbrewery was founded in 2011 Dave Slocombe, who was a home brewer and solicitor who worked in London and Bristol before relocating to Devon. He has a smallholding nearby where he’s planted a vineyard; he says, “We do plan to make wine commercially but it is still some years away.”

Dave says he makes about 11 barrels a week in the summer – that’s 164l UK barrels, so 18 hectolitres. Although he started out using a commercial yeast, he now crops the barm, maintaining his own, unique yeast culture – to give his brews some added distinction. He says his beers are regularly in about eight pubs, adding that they’ve been in about 85 since he started producing in 2011.

A pint of Make me Hoppy at the Old Market Inn, Holsworthy, Devon

I had a pint of Dave’s Make Me Hoppy at the Old Market Inn. It’s his latest beer, a seasonal brew for Spring 2013. A 4.7% ABV beer, it is, as you’d expect, all about the hops – and is made with a blend of three, Green Bullet, Perle and Hersbrucke Hallertau. He says, “I wanted a floral, fairly Germanic beer, as a contrast to the fruitiness of Tamar Sauce, its predecessor.” And it is just that: crisp and floral.

My dad got a load of Holsworthy Ales in at their house, and I also tried the bottled version, which was slightly more carbonated than the cask version. This is natural, but especially so in the summer. Dave explains, “Bottled beers will nearly always be more carbonated, although I bottle out of the fermenter and (usually) at the same time as I cask up.  It is down to two factors: (1) the beer will often have more time in the bottle and kept in warmer conditions so has more time to have (relatively) vigorous secondary fermentation and (2) cask beer is generally kept in cellar conditions slowing down secondary fermentation and in a hand pull situation a lot of the CO2 is forced out of the beer in the pumping process, especially if the pump has a sparkler on it.”

Holsworthy Ales, brewery, Clawton, near Holsworthy, Devon

Holsworthy Ales currently does eight different beers. I wrote about the Autumnal Conker King here. This time round I also had Tamar Sauce, a pale ale with reasonable carbonation (in the bottled version), minimal head and a fairly thin body. It’s made in the summer and is a suitably refreshing floral and fruity drink for a warm weather (yes, the sun was out when I had mine, as you can see from the pic). It’s “hopped with New Zealand Cascade hops. This gives strong fruity notes which are balanced by bitterness from Green Bullet hops.”

Sun Shine (ABV 4%) is another nice summer drink, again with a fairly thin, well-carbonated body and a crisp, dry flavour and finish. It’s not unlike the (bottled) Make Me Hoppy, but is fruitier and less bitter.

My favourite of his beers in this sampling though was Mine’s a Mild. It’s a delicious low alcohol (3.7%) brew that’s great for a refreshing lunchtime drink, just right for when I had to keep my wits about me to go scrumping firewood after lunch in the gloomy, tangled woods nearby. It’s medium bodied, smooth and very malty, with a toastiness I found almost smoky.

Holsworthy Ales' Mine's a Mild

Holsworthy’s changed a fair bit in the 14-ish years I’ve been visiting. The one decent pasty shop closed down years ago, and the town acquired a supermarket – though some good independent shops manage to survive, like a nice little cheese shop and a great cook shop nextdoor. Oh, and Bergerac/Ispettore Barnaby himself has moved in nearby too. Best of all though, the beer scene really has gone from strength to strength thanks to the likes of Lee and Dave (whose next brew is a “Belgian style beer” specifically a “Chimay/Kwak type beer”). Not bad for the middle of nowhere in perennially soggy northwest Devon.

Old Market Inn
Chapel Street, Holsworthy, Devon EX22 6AY
oldmarketinn.co.uk | info@oldmarketinn.co.uk |+44 (0)1409 253941

Holsworthy Ales
Unit 5, Circuit Business Park, Clawton, Holsworthy, Devon EX22 6RR
holsworthyales.co.uk |dave@holsworthyales.co.uk | +44 (0)7879 401073


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