Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

Watneys -- the worst?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Wat­ney Mann, or Wat­ney Combe Reid) was the Evil Cor­po­ra­tion which sought to crush plucky small brew­ers and impose its own ter­ri­ble beer on the drink­ing pub­lic. It acquired and closed beloved local brew­eries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clum­sy makeovers.

Its Red Bar­rel was par­tic­u­lar­ly vile – a sym­bol of all that was wrong with indus­tri­al brew­ing and nation­al brands pushed through cyn­i­cal mar­ket­ing cam­paigns.

This, at least, was the accept­ed nar­ra­tive for a long time, formed by the pro­pa­gan­da of the Cam­paign for Real Ale in its ear­ly years, and set hard through years of rep­e­ti­tion.

But does it stand up to scruti­ny? What if, con­trary to every­thing we’ve heard, Red Bar­rel was actu­al­ly kind of OK?

This long post was made pos­si­ble by the kind sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like Matthew Turn­bull and David Sim, whose encour­age­ment makes us feel less daft about spend­ing half a week­end work­ing on stuff like this. Please con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

What We Want is Watney’s

We’ve been writ­ing about Watney’s seri­ous­ly since 2012. At first, we were inter­est­ed because it was the ‘bad­die’ in the ori­gin sto­ry of the Cam­paign for Real Ale, which we were attempt­ing to tell in Brew Bri­tan­nia.

But then we began to find Watney’s fas­ci­nat­ing in its own right, as an exam­ple of the kind of com­pa­ny that dom­i­nat­ed Britain in the 20th cen­tu­ry: big and acquis­i­tive, sure, but retain­ing a quirky, pater­nal­is­tic ten­den­cy at least up until the 1970s.

CAMRA, and Christo­pher Hutt espe­cial­ly, regard­ed its con­sis­tent, per­va­sive brand style as a prob­lem – iden­ti­cal pubs, with iden­ti­cal fas­cias, in the same shade of red, wher­ev­er they were in the coun­try. A visu­al man­i­fes­ta­tion of the uni­form bland­ness of Watney’s beer, and the keg bit­ters of the Big Six more gen­er­al­ly.

To those less engaged in the pol­i­tics of beer, how­ev­er, that brand is some­thing to cel­e­brate – a mid-cen­tu­ry clas­sic. Con­ceived with input from the Design Research Unit, an organ­i­sa­tion with a cult fol­low­ing of its own, it has fea­tured in gallery exhi­bi­tions and books as an exam­ple of the best 20th cen­tu­ry design had to offer.

Design Research Unit designs for Watney's.
A page-spread from Design Research Unit 1945–1972, Koenig Books, 2011, via A Prac­tice for Every­day Life.

Even now, more than 40 years after the DRU brand design was aban­doned, it is pos­si­ble to recog­nise an old Wat­neys pub by remain­ing scraps of let­ter­ing and, if you’re prone to nos­tal­gia, to feel moved by the direct con­nec­tion to a brief peri­od, rough­ly between the Fes­ti­val of Britain and the Wick­er Man, when bold mod­ernism was baked into every­day life.

As for the red bar­rel itself, it tru­ly deserves that overused descrip­tion ‘icon­ic’. Whether in the form of a keyring, in per­spex over the back door of an aban­doned pub, or sit­ting as dec­o­ra­tion on the bar of a bar with retro ten­den­cies, it prompts recog­ni­tion, delight, or deri­sion.

The stick­ing point, though, is the beer – a byword for the hor­rors of 20th cen­tu­ry monop­oly brew­ing, the butt of end­less jokes. But can it real­ly have been that bad?

Red Barrel beer mat (detail)

The Badness of Red Barrel

They can’t have set out with an inten­tion for it to be vile”, wrote brew­er Hen­ry Beal­by in an email last week.

He is a child­hood friend of beer his­to­ri­an Ron Pat­tin­son and his brew­ery, Cat Asy­lum, based in Newark, spe­cialis­es in his­toric recre­ations, includ­ing a cask ale based on a 1963 recipe for Red Bar­rel.

The his­to­ry of Wat­neys Red Bar­rel, which also hap­pens to be the sto­ry of keg beer in Britain, has been told a thou­sand times, but here’s a short ver­sion: it was launched in 1931 as an alter­na­tive to cask beer for venues not equipped to dis­pense it and then, after World War II, became a flag­ship prod­uct, mar­ket­ed nation­al­ly in print and on tele­vi­sion.

This is no ordinary pint.
Detail from a 1961 nation­al press ad for Watney’s Red Bar­rel.

In 1970–71 the beer was refor­mu­lat­ed and relaunched under the name Red. This is the beer, evi­dence sug­gests, that real­ly did turn peo­ple against Watney’s, being sweet­er and fizzi­er again. A con­tem­po­rary inter­nal train­ing film unearthed by Nick Wheat put a pos­i­tive spin on the change, but acknowl­edged it nonethe­less:

What we’ve done is to give the beer a new smooth pleas­ant taste. We’ve also giv­en it a much bet­ter head and alto­geth­er a more attrac­tive appear­ance. Gone is any sug­ges­tion of bit­ter after palate; instead, there is a pleas­ant malty meali­ness.… We’ve stud­ied flavour, stud­ied people’s reac­tion to flavour, and pro­duced exper­i­men­tal beers, test­ing out all the vari­a­tions we can think of in such things of sweet­ness or bit­ter­ness.

A per­va­sive adver­tis­ing cam­paign that drew on the imagery of total­i­tar­i­an­ism didn’t help either.

Long live the Watney's Red Revolution!

It was at this time that Watney’s became the focus of the nascent Cam­paign for Real Ale. Christo­pher Hutt, CAMRA’s sec­ond chair­man, boost­ed CAMRA’s pro­file by engag­ing in a bat­tle with Watney’s head of PR, Ted Han­del, on the let­ters page of the Finan­cial Times, and the first edi­tion of the Good Beer Guide advised drinkers to ‘Avoid like the plague’.

The Watney’s Red (Bar­rel) brand was final­ly all but retired from the UK mar­ket in the late 1970s, a move wide­ly seen as a retreat in the face of CAMRA’s relent­less bat­ter­ing. It lin­gered on as an over­seas brand, though, in mar­kets where the pol­i­tics of ‘real ale’ were less potent.

When we were research­ing Brew Bri­tan­nia we spoke to many vet­er­an drinkers and observers and few had kind words to say about Watney’s beer. One excep­tion was Nick Han­del, Ted Handel’s son, who even more than 40 years on bris­tled at the rough treat­ment his father, and the beer he rep­re­sent­ed, got at the hands of CAMRA in the ear­ly 1970s:

My father was work­ing for a go-ahead brew­ing con­cern at a time of chang­ing tastes and con­sumer needs. The bat­tle with CAMRA was a small part of every­thing he had on his plate, but I did get the impres­sion they were a bit of a pain. I think they used Wat­neys as a plat­form for their own pro­pa­gan­da and he had a tricky old time with them.

We also filed away a let­ter to the jour­nal of the Insti­tute of Brew­ing mag­a­zine (brought to our atten­tion by Ed Wray) from a vet­er­an brew­er annoyed at what he regard­ed as lazy rep­e­ti­tion of the myth of Red Barrel’s awful­ness:

I have just read my copy of the Octo­ber 2013 edi­tion of B&DI The arti­cle which describes Watney’s Red Bar­rel as ‘infa­mous’ is tru­ly crass. I worked for Wat­ney in the late 60s and ear­ly 70s and remem­ber that brew as a decent bit­ter, albeit in keg form… At Mort­lake lab­o­ra­to­ry, we taste-testers prid­ed our­selves in being able to detect which brew­ery the Red Bar­rel came from; all had char­ac­ter­is­tic nuances. A touch of diacetyl from Nor­wich, a hint of SO2 from Trow­bridge or a slight whiff of DMS from Man­ches­ter. Alfie Gough’s Brighton ver­sion was as well hopped as Tamplin’s use to be, in true Sus­sex style.

All this only deep­ened our fas­ci­na­tion: could there ever be a way to estab­lish with any objec­tiv­i­ty – that is, from sources with­out their own axes to grind – how Red Bar­rel tast­ed?

And then, one day in Sep­tem­ber 2014,such evi­dence did arrive, in the form of a black ring­binder: the Wat­ney Mann Qual­i­ty Con­trol Man­u­al.

Watney Mann quality control manual, 1960s.

For more than 40 years, this doc­u­ment had sat in the per­son­al col­lec­tion of Stew­art Main, a retired brew­er best known for his time in charge at Shep­herd Neame. We had emailed him hop­ing for a few tit­bits of infor­ma­tion, lit­tle expect­ing that he would have in his pos­ses­sion the moth­er­lode.

The binder was packed with tables, lists, recipes, dia­grams and detailed notes on how to brew and pack­age each beer in the Watney’s port­fo­lio cir­ca 1965. What’s more, it came with a sheaf of loose-leaf addi­tions bring­ing the man­u­al up to date for the 1970s.

At last we had some­thing con­crete to go on.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we are not brew­ers, or even ter­ri­bly tech­ni­cal, so it took every ounce of our con­cen­tra­tion to derive any­thing at all from the raw data. It cer­tain­ly seemed to sup­port the idea that the beer itself, the basic recipe, was per­fect­ly respectable.

Red Bar­rel, Watney’s Keg, c.1966
OG 1038 | FG 1009 | c.3.8% ABV | 30–32 IBU | 27 EBC

Pale malt 89%
Enzymic (acid?) malt 1%
Crys­tal malt (vari­able, for colour) 4.5%
Malt extract (in mash) 3%
Invert 3 (sug­ar, in boil) 2.5%

We scanned the doc­u­ment and sent a copy to Ron Pat­tin­son hop­ing that he’d be bet­ter equipped to inter­pret it than us, which he was, and did, most notably in this arti­cle for Beer Advo­cate.

Cross-refer­ring to a set of brew­ing logs from the Watney’s (Usher’s) brew­ery in Trow­bridge, he reached a star­tling con­clu­sion – that Watney’s was in the habit of dump­ing stale beer into fresh beer to max­imise prof­its:

I’ve seen thou­sands of brew­ing records from sev­er­al coun­tries, but these were the first to shock me. And the first where I haven’t thought, “I’d real­ly like to try that beer.” CAMRA was right to tell read­ers to “avoid like the plague” in the first Good Beer Guide. Because Watney’s prod­ucts were up to 20 per­cent muck: beer returned from pubs, sludgy stuff from the bot­tom of tanks and oth­er crap lying around the brew­ery.

In the same arti­cle, though, he admits to hav­ing lit­tle first­hand knowl­edge of how Watney’s beers tast­ed “hav­ing tak­en CAMRA’s advice to heart”. Keen to hear from some peo­ple who had tast­ed Red Bar­rel, and/or Red, and hop­ing that per­haps 40+ years might offer some fresh per­spec­tive, we emailed some of the vet­er­ans in our address book and asked them one sim­ple ques­tion: was Red Bar­rel as bad as every­one says?

Roger Protz, beer writer

I don’t think I ever sam­pled Red Bar­rel. It was the revamp, Watney’s Red, that I drank. I was work­ing on a news­pa­per in East Lon­don and had two pubs near­by, one sell­ing Young’s Bit­ter, the oth­er Char­ring­ton IPA. I was bowled over by Young’s Ordi­nary and it turned me into a cask beer devo­tee. When ads for Watney’s Red were plas­tered all over Lon­don I thought I should try it and went to the near­est Watney’s pub. I thought it was dread­ful and lat­er described it as “liq­uid Mars Bars” – ‘sweet, gassy and lack­ing any notice­able hop char­ac­ter. In fair­ness to Wat­neys Red, I think Tar­tan Keg was worse!

Sue Hart, cam­paign­er and pub crawler

In real­i­ty, it was no worse than Dou­ble Dia­mond or Whit­bread Tankard, but it appeared to be every­where and much more vis­i­ble with its trade­mark than the oth­ers. They also did a beer called Starlight which was also keg but a tad more drink­able. It may even have been top pres­sure rather than keg.

James Lynch, chair­man of CAMRA in 1978

In truth it was nei­ther any worse nor any bet­ter than any of the oth­er nation­al keg brands. Bland, brown, devoid of any char­ac­ter and ridicu­lous­ly fizzy. That said, I can clear­ly remem­ber – just like I can remem­ber where I was when I heard the news of JFK’s assas­si­na­tion – where I was when I first decid­ed, after just one mouth­ful, that I was going to drink no more of a par­tic­u­lar pint. That was in Lon­don in 1964. That wasn’t because of the con­di­tion it was in because, as a keg beer it would have con­sis­tent, albeit con­sis­tent­ly char­ac­ter­less, but because it had noth­ing to offer. And that wasn’t Red Bar­rel but Dou­ble Dia­mond.

That offers some evi­dence, then, that Red Bar­rel was hard-done-by. And, as it hap­pens, we have anoth­er data point to offer: we have tast­ed a ver­sion of Red Bar­rel our­selves – two ver­sions, in fact, one pas­teurised, the oth­er not.

They were brewed for us in 2016 by Ed Wray, a pro­fes­sion­al brew­er who, at the time, had access to a small pas­teuris­ing unit. He fol­lowed a recipe derived from the Qual­i­ty Con­trol Man­u­al and hand­ed over the fin­ished prod­ucts dur­ing a brief encounter at Padding­ton sta­tion.

Watney's Red Barrel.

Tast­ing those beers, with due cer­e­mo­ny, in the appro­pri­ate vin­tage glass­ware, was among the most thrilling expe­ri­ences we’ve had in our many years beer-geek­ing. Of course it should have been kegged, not bot­tled, and Ed didn’t add slops, or dri­ve the beers around the coun­try in tankers, but, still, it was hard to find fault with either ver­sion:

It was deli­cious like a nice sand­wich, not like five cours­es at the Fat Duck. Chewy, sat­is­fy­ing­ly malty, fresh and def­i­nite­ly on the right side of the bland-sub­tle bor­der. There was a slight cooked flavour, we thought, although maybe that was down to the pow­er of sug­ges­tion. We imag­ine warmer, or if left sit­ting around in a pub cel­lar for six months, it might get a bit nasty. But, like this, we’d hap­pi­ly drink it every day.

With sim­i­lar curios­i­ty, Ron Pat­tin­son approached his old friend, Hen­ry Beal­by, with a worked-up recipe for Red Bar­rel as it was c.1963. We didn’t get to taste that ver­sion but Hen­ry shared some thoughts by email:

It was a beer I hard­ly ever drank in the 70s, except per­haps in a Par­ty 7 can, but it fit­ted well with our mis­sion of bring­ing back beers from the dead. I fig­ured that they can’t have set out with an inten­tion for it to be vile and thought the orig­i­nal recipe also might reflect the south­ern bit­ter style of the times. And indeed it did, remind­ing me and oth­ers of our first impres­sions of bit­ter when we strayed away from Not­ting­hamshire into the south­ern half of the coun­try… There was a lot of scoff­ing about our inten­tion to brew it but it all sold. Dou­ble Dia­mond next?

We're back and taste nothing like we used to.
Revival of the reviled

Hen­ry Beal­by isn’t the only brew­er risk­ing ridicule by dab­bling in these dark waters: in 2016, Brands Reunit­ed, which spe­cialis­es in acquir­ing expired brew­ery names and apply­ing them to con­tem­po­rary prod­ucts, brought Watney’s back to mar­ket.

When the news broke, the reac­tion was mixed. Some either remem­bered Watney’s grim rep­u­ta­tion, or remem­bered it indi­rect­ly through folk mem­o­ry, and were appalled. Oth­ers found the idea hilar­i­ous, regard­ing it as a dis­tinct­ly provoca­tive, mis­chie­vous move at the height of a craft beer rev­o­lu­tion led by the likes of Brew­Dog, and two fin­gers up at CAMRA at the same time.

The inter­est­ing thing is, though, that the new Wat­neys is using the name and the stag logo, but not the red bar­rel, or any of the DRU typog­ra­phy. And among its ros­ter of beers, there is no Red Bar­rel – only a set of mod­ern pale ales, brewed at Sambrook’s.

In an exchange of emails with Nick White­hurst, one of the co-founders of Brands Reunit­ed, we asked about the chal­lenges of pro­mot­ing beers with such a (sor­ry John Palmer) infa­mous name attached:

It’s true that Wat­neys had a bad rep in its lat­ter years, but if you go back a bit fur­ther you find an amaz­ing brand that was inno­v­a­tive and mar­ket lead­ing… Many under the age of 40 haven’t heard of Wat­neys so they eval­u­ate us like any new brand, many over 40 remem­ber the brand as some­thing their dad or grandad drank and remem­ber it fond­ly, and some even worked for Wat­neys back in the day and remem­ber it as a great busi­ness…

And is there any chance of Red Bar­rel mak­ing a come­back?

It’s not in our imme­di­ate plans but you nev­er know… I think if we do we need to get it absolute­ly spot on as we will be invit­ing the world to judge us. For now, we are a small busi­ness try­ing to prove our­selves and to estab­lish Wat­neys as a cred­i­ble craft brand in a very com­pet­i­tive mar­ket… One thing we have just done is made some Red Bar­rel mem­o­ra­bil­ia. I get more requests for keyrings than any­thing else so we have just made some of those, and some Red Bar­rel pin badges.

There’s a ten­sion in the way Brands Reunit­ed mar­kets its Watney’s brand­ed beers: on the one hand, it wants to cap­i­talise on nos­tal­gia, but on the oth­er it recoils from the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions of the old name. The slo­gan “We’re back…. And taste noth­ing like we used to” is intend­ed as self-aware self-dep­re­ca­tion but betrays doubt: is it proud of its her­itage, or ashamed of it?

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing that almost 50 years since any­one last ordered a pint of Red Bar­rel, a beer that prob­a­bly wasn’t so dread­ful in itself, that the brand still has a stink about it.

17 thoughts on “Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?”

  1. Read­ers might enjoy this 1960’s clip of Watney’s Red Bar­rel being dis­pensed from a gleam­ing red bar­rel hous­ing. It shows the colour, a hon­ey amber, quite well too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlcCJ4mt_U4

    Also, Slee­man Brew­ery in Guelph, ON brewed a ver­sion of Watney’s Red Bar­rel in bot­tle about 20 years ago, for export to the U.S. I don’t know what recipe was used but this ver­sion was rather bland.

    James Robert­son, in his 1978 “The Great Amer­i­can Beer Book, described “Watney’s Red Bar­rel Beer”, brewed he said at Mort­lake Brew­ery Lon­don, as “cop­per gold, toast­ed-malt aro­ma, fla­vor starts out strong­ly malty but fin­ish­es sour [adjunct, I’d guess], long after­taste on the sour side”. Also: “A much bet­ter prod­uct on draft”.

    The beer was avail­able on draft in the mid-70s in the U.S. to my own rec­ol­lec­tion. I’d think it was the orig­i­nal for­mu­la­tion, but it is impos­si­ble to know unless the binder you refer to gives details. I am sure I tast­ed this export (bot­tle and maybe draft) but have no rec­ol­lec­tion.

    It sounds like the orig­i­nal for­mu­la­tion was quite good, and I’d think rather sim­i­lar, not to the taste as such, but the over­all qual­i­ty of Whit­bread Pale Ale as I recall it c.1975. It had a mealy sweet­ish taste, not very hop­py, but malt was for­ward and I think that was the inten­tion of the brew­ers. New­cas­tle Brown Ale was sim­i­lar, not again in taste but the over­all effect. McEwan’s Scotch Ale too.

    Real ale was very dif­fer­ent, the rest is his­to­ry…

    Gary

  2. Maybe Wat­ney were just a bit more hon­est about what they did with “ullage”. Per­haps this was accept­ed as stan­dard prac­tice, and most brew­eries didn’t feel the need to cat­a­logue it. Only Watney’s had to explic­it­ly spell it out because they were expand­ing their brew­ing to exter­nal brew­eries. Just a thought!

  3. One thing seems to have got lost about Watney’s use of ullage: it didn’t apply to Red Bar­rel. Just all their oth­er beers.

    1. That was our read­ing of the WQCM orig­i­nal­ly but we got the impres­sion from Hen­ry, and from your BA arti­cle, that there might be some doubt around it. At any rate, prob­a­bly quite hard to main­tain a rep­u­ta­tion for qual­i­ty for one OK beer when all your oth­ers are… not OK.

  4. Half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, I learned that Dry­brough in Edin­burgh had test-brewed Wat­ney cir­ca 1965.

    1. I’ve pho­tos of Drybrough’s brew­ing records from that peri­od. Red Bar­rel doesn’t appear but Mann’s Brown Ale does.

    1. It gets men­tioned in *every* arti­cle about Wat­neys, and is quot­ed in Brew Bri­tan­nia, but there was no par­tic­u­lar rea­son to bring it up here oth­er than to avoid being asked why we left it out…

  5. Whilst pas­teur­ized beer was meant to be con­sis­tent, there were vari­a­tions between pubs. The speed of turnover, the clean­ing if lines and glass­es and the CO2 pres­sure would have made vast dif­fer­ences. I expe­ri­enced some indif­fer­ent, not too bad, pints of Red Bar­rel whilst oth­ers were awful.
    DD was a main­stay more recent­ly in pri­vate hotels. I remem­ber hol­i­days in the 1980s and 1990s with awful DD. But these were hotels stock­ing DD and Skol on draught, and prob­a­bly sell­ing one or two kegs of each across the entire six or sev­en month “Sum­mer” sea­son

  6. Wat­ney was good at adver­tis­ing. Does any­one else remem­ber “Wot we want is Wat­ney” or even when Wat­neys Spe­cial was said to be “the spe­cial Spe­cial”? From an era when Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan owned Wat­ney came the insight: “Nor­folk is gross­ly over­pubbed”. Grand Met even tried to rub­bish CAMRA as “word of mouth”. Inci­den­tal­ly, does any­one remem­ber when CAMRA also attacked Whit­bread?

  7. I reviewed Red Bar­rel years ago…

    I’m old enough to remem­ber when keg bit­ter ruled the land (just about), and I did once drink bleed­in’ Watney’s Red Bar­rel. (At least, I think it was Red Bar­rel – some­body else was buy­ing, I wasn’t even 18 at the time. Actu­al­ly, I don’t think I was 16 at the time.) I’ve nev­er for­got­ten what it tast­ed like: it was cold, it was stom­ach-bloat­ing­ly fizzy and it tast­ed the same all the way through. We had a Sodas­tream machine at home at the time, and that was what it remind­ed me of – it was as if some­body had brought out a ‘beer’ flavour and mixed it into chilled soda water. My next half – some months lat­er – was [Buckley’s] cask bit­ter, and it did that thing cask beer so con­sis­tent­ly does, of pre­sent­ing dif­fer­ent aspects of its flavour in shift­ing com­bi­na­tions as you work your way down the glass; by the time I got to the bot­tom I was hooked for life.”

    That sec­ond sen­tence does rather reduce the util­i­ty of these com­ments for your pur­pos­es, admit­ted­ly.

    1. On sec­ond thoughts what I had will have been Watney’s Red – as dis­tinct from RB – which sounds awful even when Watney’s are try­ing to big it up. You may be on to some­thing.

  8. I’m not quite old enough to have tast­ed Wat­neys. How­ev­er, I vivid­ly remem­ber the rivals Dou­ble Dia­mond and Long Life. My dad would drink cask if he could get it, but there were always a few cans of the afore­men­tioned at home. How did they taste? Think of the taste of canned shandy, in your mind sub­tract the lemon­ish­ness, and what remains is what those beers tast­ed like with a sim­i­lar mouth­feel. I sus­pect Wat­neys was sim­i­lar.

  9. Ind Coope Draught Bur­ton Ale was intro­duced in 1976 as a cask ver­sion of the 4.7% bot­tled ver­sion of Dou­ble Dia­mond (Allied reduced the keg ver­sion to 3.8%). Bur­ton Bridge start­ed brew­ing a recre­ation of DBA in 2015 and it’s blum­ming love­ly, seek it out if you can.

    I think there’s an inter­est­ing par­al­lel between Red Bar­rel and Stel­la – both posi­tioned as pre­mi­um prod­ucts when they first hit the mass mar­ket, but they man­aged to thor­ough­ly destroy that rep­u­ta­tion.

    1. The Bur­ton Ale of the late 70s and ear­ly 80s was superb when kept by an enthu­si­as­tic cel­lar­man.

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