Tea Speaks

  • Kombucha Tea and Herb Guide

     

    For brewers new and experienced, use this kombucha tea and herb guide to jump off the tea bag bandwagon and into the world of loose leaf! Loose leaf teas are, across the board, of a much higher quality than those that come in tea bags. And be sure to visit our website to check out our selection of premium brewing teas.

     

    Kombucha Tea Guide, Kombucha Brooklyn

  • Black Tea Kombucha

     

    Bi Luo High Grade

     

    Think back to your first memories of tea. What types of images are elicited? For me, I picture a tea bag, being gingerly plunged up and down in a steaming cup of dark red or black liquid. This will have assuredly been a black tea - English breakfast, Lipton, Earl Gray - the ubiquitous facets of Western tea consumption.

     

    Black or Red?

     

    But if you’re like most Westerners, the connotation of “black tea” doesn’t really allow for the luxurious, complex experience that fine teas can elicit. More often, we’re conditioned to see black tea as common and unvarying - perhaps simply due to the title. Black is black, after all; monodimensional, uninteresting. In China, however, this variety of fully oxidized leaf (called hong cha or "red tea") contains a diverse array of qualities.

     

    So named because of the color of the tea’s liquor, the visual variance in the color red bring about an alluring, enigmatic quality that evokes passion, depth and complexity. These descriptors reveal the true nature of a black (red) tea, and the energy felt from these teas I would consider grounding, earnest and powerful.

     

    There's something about the dark, smooth, pure and strong character of these teas that is simply divine, convincing, and transcendent. Though some characteristics are shared across the board, for example, in teas from China and India, many of the factors that affect the flavor of these teas simply cannot be replicated outside of certain regions, whether it be based on soil, climate, genetics or processing. Today, I'll focus on Chinese black teas.

     


     

    Black, or red tea - A fully oxidized tea that generally has dark brown or black leaves. “Black” is a very general way to describe a tea, and in the same way that there are many shades of every color, these teas are just as varied.

     

    Keemun Gong Fu Kombucha Brooklyn Keemun Gong Fu

    Though not always the case with black teas, they can have an inherent astringency, or bitterness, that can be reduced with the addition of milk and/or sugar (to the chagrin of its producers). Not all black teas will take to milk and sugar successfully, though this is the most popular way to serve black tea in the West, whereas in Asia, if drinking black tea, plain is the most common fashion.

     

    Black teas are better suited for long term storage than green or oolong teas, and as such were more popular in the West during the early history of European/Asian tea trade.

     

    Chinese Black Tea

     

    The archetypal nature of black tea in the West belies the fact that the style's history doesn't seem to be present until being developed in plantations during the Ming dynasty (which ended in 1644). Surprising to me as a lover of black tea, this is not a popularly consumed style among even those who produce it - in China, black tea makes up only about 1/20th of the nation's total tea production - green tea, by far, makes up most of this harvest.

     

    Black teas can't be said, generally speaking, to contain more caffeine than, say, greens; while caffeine is largely sequestered in young leaves, with black teas there's not a polarizing distinction across the category that would suggest a more highly-caffeinated brew. It's not uncommon to find buds among the leaves, often providing beautiful golden contrast to the dark black or red leaves. The leaves of the sinensis varietal are usually small, with minor variations in shape, especially compared to the black teas of India’s Assam region (although related). Special varietals exist even within this Latin sinensis distinction, as is the case with the well-known Keemun.

     

    Processing the Leaves

     


     

    Raw 1992 Pu-erh, Kombucha Brooklyn Raw 1992 Pu-erh

     

    A side-note on Pu-erh tea:  Generally speaking, calling a Pu-erh a "black tea" may be semi-accurate but is not generally discussed as part of this category. Now often intentionally aged or simulated-aged, I like to look at Pu-erh tea as leaves that are on a (potentially) very long road to becoming a black tea, or fully oxidized.

     

    To read more about Pu-erh tea, check out the blog post here.

     

     

     

     

     


     

    Withering is the first step the leaves undergo after being carefully plucked. This process softens the leaves so that they are more malleable and the next step, rolling, is made easier as a result. This action stimulates the oxidizing enzymes that turn the green, withered leaves into a fully oxidized tea with leaves of black, brown, gold, orange and red.

     

    Next, oxidation is stimulated by covering the leaves with a damp cloth for up to half a day. Compared to oxidation of Indian black tea, this process creates a more mild and less astringent tea. There isn't really a set-in-stone methodology, as all variables are taken into account by the tea handler to produce a fine tea that is the result of much skill and experience. It is the prerogative of the tea artist to elicit fine flavor that showcases the terroir as well as his own skill in shaping the final product.

     

    Finally, the leaves are dried which slows oxidation. There are various methods used to dry the leaves, but warmth and heat are paramount at this stage to reduce the presence of residual moisture, improving stability.

     

    Chinese Black Tea Varieties

     

    The major black teas of China can be divided into a few major types. A short list includes Keemun, Yunnan and Lapsang Souchong. Each has its own characteristic growing region, processing methods and of course, flavor.

     

    Yunnan

     

    Considered the birthplace of the tea species, Yunnan province in China has a surprisingly short history in making black tea. Since that start in 1939, however, it has become the main black tea producing region in China. Yunnan black tea has soft, lightly-twisted leaves that are broad and can be infused many times and yields a woody, dried apricot, leather and earthy flavor that has a strong finish. Gold-orange buds (the youngest part of a tea plant) are a major part of this tea's leaves and the appearance and flavor of tobacco and pepper is unmistakeable; tiny hairs impart a lingering tenacity on the palate. Teas from the Yunnan region are some of my absolute favorites.

     

    KBBK black tea

     

    Keemun

     

    Keemun tea is made from the small-leafed tea plant that results in a tea that is lightly sweet, with notes of cocoa and a clean and focused maltiness with a strong fruity characteristic - surprisingly fruity. The inherent sweetness of this tea is a quality I adore in teas, tending to weaken my knees, elicit wistful daydreams and strike up wordless conversations with the leaves. It is the only of the red teas that is on China's top-10 list of favorite teas.

     

    Lapsang Souchong

     

    The unique Lapsang Souchong is a special black tea that is processed with a step that contributes pine smoke to the tea -  the final drying of the tea is done above smoldering pine embers. It should be noted that the smoky characteristic is not subtle. It can often be sharp in smokiness but is clean and always convincing. While this tea will make excellent kombucha, I find the smokiness to be a little overbearing so will usually "cut" it with another, unsmoked, tea. I've had great success with Lapsang-chamomile kombucha, as well.

     

    'Buching with Black Teas

     

    Not to be overlooked is the quality of kombucha that can be achieved through use of the many varieties of black tea. Flavors that can be expected vary widely - malted barley, toffee, caramel, biscuits, coconut, to name a few - and are unique to each tea, but really across the board the stand-out flavor I find that is elicited in black teas is that of apples.

     

    SCOBYs are absolutely voracious for black tea, and it shows in explosive growth and a reliably quick ferment. Chinese hongcha is just the start of our exploration of brewing with black tea kombucha. Another of the world's major black tea production regions is India, whose abundance of variety is the topic of a future entry.

     

    Above all, 'buch brewers, remember that variety is the spice of 'buch, and you need not look to post-fermentation flavoring to make spectacular kombucha! Don't feel pinned down to any specific dogma regarding teas, especially the sleeping giant of black teas - varied and complex - which may have previously been hiding behind the Liptons and English Breakfasts of the world. Look around, sip often, and brew constantly - and don't forget to have fun!

     

    Check out other blog entries about tea here!
     
    For fine black teas and many others, look here to see what fine teas are available from Kombucha Brooklyn!

     

  • Caffeine and Kombucha, pt. 2 - Brewing Kombucha with High Caffeine

     

    Guayusa and yerba Guayusa and Yerba Mate, while not technically tea, are both traditionally consumed from a gourd

    If you've been following our blog series, you may have read my post about the highly energizing yerba mate. It's a tasty herb that makes excellent kombucha, and I usually blend it with white tea. Check it out here if you haven't already. Now, on to Brewing Kombucha with High Caffeine ...
     
    Misinformation abounds regarding the concentrations of caffeine in the various traditional tea varieties. Among the most prominently circulated holds that "lighter" teas, such as white and green teas, contain moderate amounts, whereas darker teas such as black, oolong and pu-erh will generally contain a greater amount of caffeine.

     
    The sheer complexity of the tea plant prevents anything but generalizations from being made. That said, if you have been privy to most of the data circulating regarding caffeine and teas, you likely have a different story than what closer inspection will reveal. I'll admit to acceptance of some of these thoughts as well - white tea is low in caffeine, right? And greens have much less than black tea? Wrong - for the most part.

     

    Young leaves mean higher caffeine

     

    Jade Dewdrops, Mao Feng, Black Iron Goddess Left to right: Jade Dewdrops (green), Mao Feng (green), Black Iron Goddess (black)

    The younger a tea leaf is when it is plucked, the higher the concentration of caffeine there will be. So, since green and white teas are made from the youngest parts of the plant, on the whole these leaves will be highest in caffeine. This will, then, be especially true of silver bud white tea, or any tea that contains buds, for that matter. This doesn't necessarily exclude black teas.

     

    This blog written by Nigel Melican was extremely helpful when I was trying to find out more regarding my favorite beverage and the caffeine therein. In it, Nigel debunks caffeine content myths and discusses the early pour-off method, thought (falsely) by many to decrease caffeine.

     

    Guayusa - cousin to yerba mate

     

    Another great tea-like herb that provides a lot of energy from caffeine is guayusa. Primarily grown in Ecuador, it is said to be consumed before and during hunting. Like yerba mate, it provides a clean energy boost without risk of "crashing" after the boost wears off.

     

    Guayusa, yerba mate, silver bud Left to right: Guayusa, yerba mate, silver bud white tea

    I love to make kombucha with it not only because of the physiological effects, but it also has a great flavor, not unlike rooibos. You could almost look at guayusa as a caffeinated rooibos, one I often describe as having an herbal cherry flavor.

     

    So, definitely consider this one when concocting your 'buch energy drink! Think probiotic coffee substitute. Many thanks to our friends at Runa for all the knowledge and tea.

     

    Remember pu-erh?

     

    Another tea to consider when making a high energy kombucha is a style called pu-erh. You may have read my blog post on pu-erhs posted back in March. If not, check it out here.

     

    Mi Lan Xiang Phoenix Mountain Oolong, and a Tibetan mushroom pu-erh Mi Lan Xiang Phoenix Mountain Oolong, and a Tibetan mushroom pu-erh

    While pu-erhs may not have the highest caffeine content, there's definitely a strength and energy that is really noted across the board with this style. So these make a great, boosting kombucha that also will be very medicinal and also have a unique taste.

     

    When endeavoring to make high-energy kombucha, look no further than yerba mate, guayusa, white and green (check out Jade Dewdrops - it's outstanding) teas, and pu-erhs. Of course other styles will still provide you with caffeine, but if you're looking to maximize, it's useful to look at these types.

     

    KBBK is making it easy to do this with our selection of teas, which now includes bulk yerba mate for 2, 4, or 6 brews.

     

    Until next time - consider brewing up a little something to get you jacked in the morning - that won't make your stomach writhe and your body crash. A healthier part of waking up ;-).

     

    An array of (mostly) teas arranged left to right, higher to lower caffeine An array of (mostly) teas arranged left to right, higher to lower caffeine
  • Caffeine and Kombucha, pt. 1 - Brewing Kombucha without Caffeine

     

    I'm frequently asked about caffeine and kombucha, and caffeine content of kombucha in general. This consideration has immediate repercussions for many people, such as those allergic to caffeine, to those who are very sensitive to its effects. As such, there is a lot of interest for kombucha brewers in the range of caffeine one can find in kombucha. Today I'd like to discuss the making of kombucha without, or with very little caffeine.

    Barley-Rooibos kombucha Barley-Rooibos kombucha

    *Contrary to some opinions I've heard, it has been verified that caffeine content in kombucha does not decrease during fermentation.* (from Michael Roussin's "Analyses of Kombucha Ferments," a great paper that can be found here)

     

    **The kombucha recipe Kombucha Brooklyn provides, and that we brew with, calls for 3/4 less dry tea than does the same amount of tea you would drink, say at 2pm with snacks. That means 3/4 less caffeine than a standard cup of tea.**

     

    Firstly, I'd like to provide a disclaimer. One of the major tenets of KBBK philosophy holds that kombucha brewed without tea (camellia sinensis) will not always reliably change from sweet to fermented, and if it does, you will find it very difficult to sustain a culture on these tisanes, herbal teas, or otherwise. Whereas you can usually get one or two ferments successfully, at most, from non-tea containing brews (grape juice, coconut water with pineapple, barley and rooibos), you will not be able to sustain a SCOBY with these seemingly normal foods that are actually alien to your culture.

     

    Shu-mee White tea, left; Silver Bud white tea, right Shu-mee White tea, left; Silver Bud white tea, right; great for making tea-based kombucha - but not actually low in caffeine

    As I sat pondering this issue, I started to consider other fermented beverages with foods that provide a good nutrient profile suitable for feeding yeast. My first thought was beer; then I remembered something my co-worker Anna had brought in to our office, that we enjoyed immensely when steeped as a tea - roasted barley. Bingo! I wanted to brew a kombucha that had greatly reduced caffeine, and it seemed barley might be the key. Another of my favorite alterna-"tea"ves, rooibos, came to me as the next best herb to use in this caffeine-free kombucha admixture. Said to have been cultivated by Dutch settlers of South Africa as a replacement for black tea (then a prohibitively expensive prospect for import), rooibos has become a popular facet of South African culture.

     

    Barley, left; Rooibos, right Barley, left; Rooibos, right

    I was relatively sure that a combination of barley and rooibos would ferment just fine into kombucha. As I've been experimenting with many different herbal additions to traditional kombucha teas (which have been pretty much anything camellia sinensis), and discovered that the culture is relatively resilient to such experimentation, I figured diving in head-first would be both fun and informative.

     

    I would call the results highly successful. To fully ferment took about 10 days, when I reached a nice balance of sweetness and acidity, and I was left with a kombucha that had a very malty and tart cherry flavor. Rooibos, tasting a lot like an herbal cherry, undoubtedly was the most forward of the flavors in this brew. My SCOBY wasn't anything substantial, about 2 mm thick, but the 'buch was definitely 'buch. And since I have an essentially unlimited supply of SCOBYs, I wasn't worried about keeping a culture going feeding on this simple, tea-free brew.

     

    The longevity of your culture will however be a great concern to you, the home brewer. You will be able to use your initial, "seed SCOBY" multiple times, but your caffeine-free brew may not produce a nice, thick SCOBY every time you brew, as camellia sinensis is the best food for kombucha. As such, I suggest keeping a container in your refrigerator full of SCOBYs, like the one seen below. You'll want to keep it covered to prevent drying, but each time you have a nice new SCOBY, consider putting it in the refrigerator to keep it as a backup. That way, you won't have to count on your caffeine-free brew producing a SCOBY every week, as you'll have plenty, and this brew won't kill off your original "seed SCOBY" necessarily, it just won't produce a new one.

     

    Collection of SCOBYs as backup Collection of SCOBYs as backup; cover with a lid and store in the refrigerator indefinitely!

     

    So, keep these possibilities in mind when you make your next batch, and also remember that experimentation is the spice of kombucha brewing. You may very well find many different mixtures that work for you that don't include caffeine or tea!

     

    Stay tuned - in my next blog, I'll go over making caffeinated and energetic kombucha that will have you jumping for jitter-free joy!

  • Re-Thinking Kombucha Flavoring, pt. 2: Pu-erh, Caviar of Teas

     

    In Part 1, I discussed the use of teas alone as a basic and powerful method of kombucha flavoring. Now, I'd like to take a look at one variety of tea that often gets overlooked in the West...

     

    Among the most alluring aspects of tea is its ability to elicit the sensation of feeling like you are somewhere else, in time or space. It can, beyond words, call forth a sort of sensory tableau, akin to déjà vu.

     

    The sensory details of each day's occurrences are connected by our experience, and accrue as a sort of personal encyclopedia. These details inform and even alter the manner with which we perceive our world and recall our personal history. And in the same way our minds build perceptions and experiences into memory, so can our minds retrieve memory (or illusion) from similar sensations and events. These can include cues such as sights, smells, sounds, feelings etc.

     

    Chinese pu-erh - kombucha flavoring Chinese pu-erh

    Not only is the flavor, body and aroma of a tea an immediate sensory experience, but it also can call forth recollection and imagination. Consider this as I talk about one of the most alluring, evocative and enigmatic of them all - pu-erh.

     

    Pu-Erh, Caviar of Teas

     

    When you drink a pu-erh, a (dry) fermented, aged, tea, a whole host of impressions can be stimulated in striking fashion. You might re-experience acute sensations you’ve had in the forest -  the smell of sweet notes of earth, tree bark and mushrooms - along with a little stimulation, possibly from the surprise nature of revelatory sensation, like a rush of adrenaline. These flavors sound strange to find in a tea - but pu-erhs are as complex and nuanced as a fine scotch whiskey - as a memory itself. And like caviar, pu-erhs are highly revered - but can also be polarizing.

     

    What’s this have to do with kombucha?

     

    In fermenting a fine tea, you’re supercharging its nutritive potential, contributing to its flavor, and of course making it additionally refreshing (with refrigeration and carbonation from a nice bottle conditioning). Pu-erhs are considered highly medicinal - supposedly helpful in weight loss, cholesterol reduction and cleansing the blood. At KBBK, we love to drink pu-erh kombucha to give us a great boost of energy, detoxify our bodies, and provide a very unique and conversational experience.

     

     Types of Pu-erh

     

    Imperial Pu-erh Imperial Pu-erh

    Pu-Er was the name of a Chinese town of antiquity which was known for being a center of commerce from which this type of tea was regularly exported. Of pu-erhs there are two distinct categories - the one photographed above is a "shu," or ripe pu-erh. Specially conditioned to recreate long-aged teas, it is "cooked" - tea handlers essentially compost the leaves in a very controlled environment. Tea producers began to utilize this process to attempt to satisfy the high demand for aged pu-erhs - the original, singular style of pu-erh - until the "cooking" process was developed in the late 20th century. While in cooking the result isn't exactly the same as you would achieve through aging, it creates, no less, a very distinct and unique product that isn't really so far off from "sheng" pu-erhs.

     

    Sheng pu-erh from 1992, kombucha flavoring Sheng pu-erh from 1992

    Sheng pu-erhs are considered raw - the tea is not composted or fermented quickly, but over time and through closely-guarded methods. This is a style of the old days, long pre-dating the Mongol invasion of China, and it is still considered an integral part of the culture. It is well known among enthusiasts that the best pu-erhs are consumed after decades of aging. The one pictured above has seen nearly a quarter of a century pass.

     

    In our experience, longer-aged sheng pu-erhs are much mellower and less astringent than are younger examples of the style (though still remaining enigmatic, startling, and delicious).

     

    Bamboo-aged pu-erh, pu-erh knife, and a pu-erh cake Bamboo-aged pu-erh, pu-erh knife, and a pu-erh cake

     

    Pu-erh Kombucha

     

    However, when we are brewing our pu-erh teas into kombucha, we need not worry about bitterness. This is due to the unique ability of the culture to eliminate the tannic bitterness you might notice in a tea before fermentation. So, out of a pu-erh kombucha you are left with a complex, highly medicinal and refreshing beverage, a giant and healthy SCOBY; not to mention a chance to step into a distant memory or illusion elicited by the tea's terroir, processing, and especially in the case of pu-erhs, age.

     

    Silver Bud Pu-Erh Silver Bud White Pu-Erh

    If this sounds enticing, you simply must taste for yourself. A great place to start exploring pu-erh kombucha is with our office favorite, the sheng Silver Bud White Pu-erh. While usually made from older leaves, this unique variety has been made with the buds of the tea tree. And while only aged for 11 years, you'll notice a distinct fruitiness in this tea that is strongly reminiscent of sweet prunes, tobacco and honeydew. For a convincing pu-erh brew, look no further, and remember - this is kombucha flavoring at its simplest and most effective. So, brew up some pu-erh kombucha, sip with your eyes closed, and see where the tea and your imagination can take you!

  • Alterna-tea-ves - Yerba Mate

    By Chris Strait

    It’s common practice today to associate all plant-based infusions with the word “tea,” leaving clarification to come from context. It is especially important, however, to delineate between the varieties of tea when speaking of kombucha brewing.

    mate_blog Yerba mate guampa alongside some yerba mate leaf

    Historically, the most common (and original) practice has been to use the evergreen Camellia sinensis (which is comprised of 3 main varieties I won’t explore now) in kombucha production. It’s responsible for the classics - teas like English breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, and Gunpowder green come immediately to mind. That is not to say, however, that the incredibly adaptable SCOBY is unable to grow from feeding upon certain herbal teas, some with homeopathic resonance, some with cultural lineage, some with both.

     

    Today I’d like to briefly explore yerba mate. A Holly-related tree grown predominantly in South American nations (Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil...), it was under cultivation prior to European contact and has maintained status as a daily staple for millions. In recent years, the popularity of mate has been spreading north, and it’s easy to understand why.

     

    The leaves of the yerba mate tree possess numerous benefits in health and practicality. It is, I’ll posit, a “comprehensive” stimulant; while providing modest amounts of caffeine, it also contains the stimulant alkaloids theobromine and theophylline, most commonly associated with cacao and coffee, respectively. What’s the result? Consistent stimulation without the jitters. This herb is downright powerful, without the almost requisite crash that comes from a coffee binge. It’s is a tea you can drink all day long - to no ill physical effect - while promoting clarity and balanced energy.

     

    Yerba mate’s health benefits are even more astounding. It’s useful to compare mate with green tea, its healthful counterpart among infused beverages. Mate is a great source for antioxidants like polyphenols, which are indicated to have immune-boosting and cell-strengthening properties. Paramount are the incredible number of minerals provided by the plant - potassium, calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, zinc - check out your daily multivitamin, do any of these ring a bell? Let’s not forget the ever-touted importance of naturally occurring sources of vitamins - mate contains A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, and E, to name a few. In addition, yerba mate is a fantastic source of amino acids, flavanols, chlorophyll and fatty acids.

     

    That’s enough to have me interested. But there’s even more to consider. While it’s not hard to find yerba mate in tea bags, doling out 3-5 grams per cup,  traditional measurement and consumption is something much less quantifiable. Enter the gourd, a hollowed-out calabash, that is methodically filled and shared communally. The gourd, or guampa, or mate, is filled 2/3 full, which amounts easily to 20+ grams of material (in my fire gourd). After tempering the herb with cool water, the gourd is continually refilled with hot (not boiling) water, and consumed until the tea is too weak to continue. This method allows for much more of the nutrients to be passed on into the infusion, and allows you to control your nutrient/stimulant intake. Ahh, the freedom of loose-leaf. Combine loose-leaf mate with your stuffy old French press and you’ve got an incredibly simple, quick source of vitality and stimulation.


    That’s a basic introduction to the world of the yerba mate. One more thing. You can steep it with room-temperature water. In under 10 minutes. What are you waiting for?

  • Re-Thinking Kombucha Flavoring

    By Chris Strait

    Since my introduction to the world of fermented tea 7 years ago, it seems as if the “standard operating procedure” has been inclined towards post-fermentation flavoring. This has yielded a myriad of incredibly complex and delicious drinks, for sure. The creativity involved in such conjuration is one of the most enjoyable aspects of brewing kombucha.



    tea_blog An array of fine loose-leaf teas alongside a gaiwan

    But just like in food, the beverage world benefits greatly from the observance of simplicity. Every pot of chili, korma, etc. has its antipode in an onion, in kale, in almonds, etc. - unadulterated, unprocessed, additive-free - you get the picture. The equivalent impulse to simplify, in the realm of kombucha, involves an examination of the unavoidable essentials - sugar and tea.


    While I have extensive experience in brewing with relatively “standard” teas (English breakfast, white, gunpowder green, even yerba mate), the effects of kombucha fermentation on fine teas is relatively uncharted territory for me. What happens when you ferment a Dragonwell green tea, a fine oolong of Phoenix Mountain, the fine buds of Silver Needle white tea, or a Pu-erh? What I’m beginning to discover is a world of complexity and flavor I’ve never experienced in kombucha. Tastes of passionfruit, pineapple, coconut, chocolate - all flavors I would have added post-fermentation - and more - are completely attainable with careful tea choice, steeping and fermentation.

     

    This is just the beginning of a long road, paved with SCOBYs, with new discoveries at every turn. In upcoming posts I’ll examine the varieties of teas, their connection with the land (contributing terroir), the important influence of human processing, and their “kombuchatization.”

     

    So, stay tuned, get some ‘buch brewing, and let’s explore. It’s going to be an exciting journey.

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