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7 award-winning Chicagoland breweries to check out this summer

While plenty of Chicagoans love to kick back with a cold Miller Lite or Modelo during ‘Summer Time Chi,’ there are more than a half-dozen Chicagoland craft breweries who recently took home awards from the ‘Olympics of Beer’ that could step up to the plate and be the beer in your hand this summer.

The World Beer Cup (WBC), often known as the Olympics of beer competition, was founded in 1996 and every year since, brewers from around the world have come together to determine the best brews across a number of growing beer categories.

In 2023, more than 10,000 beers from nearly 2,400 breweries in 51 different countries competed in the competition, with seven craft breweries from the Chicagoland area medaling in their respective categories.

Here are each of the breweries, a little bit on their history, and the story behind each of their their award-winning beers:

Sketchbook Brewing Company, founded in 2014, started off as a hobby in an Evanston man’s garage, and blossomed into what founder Cesar Marron called “a beer café” at first.

“Come over, bring your laptop, enjoy yourself,” Marron said of Sketchbook’s atmosphere early on. “It wasn’t like a sit down place that you needed to worry about spending tons of money at, or dressing up for.”

Sketchbook’s origin began with Marron meeting friends and future coworkers at the Evanston Homebrew club. His interactions there sparked his interest in brewing, and led to a longshot, that helped slingshot him and a few others into the craft beer industry.

“[The] Sam Adams Longshot Award … sort of like, kicked me in the heels and said, ‘Hey, move forward,’” Marron said. “But also, it gave me and people I invited to start the business a whole lot of credibility.”

The Samuel Adams Longshot Award was a yearly competition held from late June to early July where homebrewers sent a 30-second video highlighting their passion for brewing and their home setup to the nationally-renowned craft brewery.

A panel of judges then selected five finalists, who each sent Samuel Adams a home brew of their choosing, to compete for a grand prize of coming to their brewing headquarters in Boston to work alongside their staff in a weeklong ‘brewership.’

Turns out, when Marron made a beer inside his garage in Evanston (a gratzer, according to Sketchbook’s website) that ended up winning the grand prize, it gave him the opportunity to take the next step.

“That kind of really just kick started the whole thing,” Marron said. “Then we signed a lease for a small spot here in Evanston.”

That small spot was a brewery that not many knew in the beginning was just that — a brewery.

“A lot of people don’t know, other than our early adopters, that we were accessible by alley only,” Marron said. “That’s the reason why we have a beer named the Orange Door, because people actually said, ‘Hey, it’s the brewery with the orange door!’”

Over the years, business steadily grew, leading to an expansion of their Evanston taproom — from 25 seats, to more than 100 — and the opening of a beer garden in Skokie. All along the way, they paid homage to the small brewery spot that got them started.

“We’ve had a lot of beers that were all a homage to our location,” Marron said. “Orange Door, Back Alley Abbey, No Parking because we basically had to police the alleys so people wouldn’t actually park in the alley.”

Fast forward to 2023, and one of Sketchbook’s latest creations — in partnership with the barbecue restaurant Soul & Smoke — became a beer as good as its name implies.

‘Beer for the Soul.’

Beer for the Soul took home a bronze medal at the 2023 World Beer Cup in the American-Belgo-Style Ale category, and according to Marron, the opportunity for its creation just fell in Sketchbook’s lap.

“We already kind of knew [Soul & Smoke] and at the time, Skokie did something pretty phenomenal,” Marron said. “They rented a food truck and invited businesses from Skokie to have a residency in a food truck.”

After starting the food truck residency program, Marron said the city of Skokie reached out to Sketchbook and asked them if they would like to have a food truck parked at their Skokie location every weekend.

“We said yeah, of course!” Marron said. “But then we went after more businesses, and then Soul & Smoke was a natural choice because they’re [also] here in Evanston and we had this location in Skokie where we could actually have their food truck in there.”

A part of the design of the Evanston taproom also included a small catering room so, on days Soul & Smoke and other businesses didn’t have a food truck, they could still bring in catering equipment to Sketchbook’s Evanston location and serve food.

With both businesses sharing common locations and each having their own dedicated following, one day, the idea was hatched to collaborate on a craft beer together — and thus — Beer for the Soul was born.

“Every time they would come over — and it still happens today — they bring a following with them,” Marron said of Soul & Smoke. “So … Chef D’Andre [Carter] approached us one day and he was like, ‘Hey! What if we did a beer together?’”

Carter noted beer and barbecue are a great pair, and after a holding few tasting events where they got a grasp on what kind of flavor profile he was going for, they decided on crafting an American-Belgo-style ale.

“It’s a hoppy-flavored beer with a well rounded flavor profile, and it goes well with food that is wholesome,” Marron said.

Marron said that anyone interested in picking up Beer for the Soul in cans or trying it in person can find it at either Soul & Smoke location in Evanston or Avondale.

If you’re interested in other Sketchbook products, be sure to check Jewel Osco’s, Albertson’s, or Binny’s around the Chicagoland area, or you can order for pickup online from their website.

According to one of their founders, Noon Whistle Brewing Company was an idea put together by a trio of guys whose friendship extends back decades to their times in Wisconsin.

“Me and two friends from grammar school actually got together and said we wanted to start a brewery,” said Paul Kreiner, co-owner and head of production for Noon Whistle.

Growing up, Kreiner, close friends and family spent vacation time in a Central Wisconsin town where every day at noon, a whistle would sound, signaling it was time to crack open the first beer of the day.

The tradition stuck, and when Kreiner, Mike Condon and Jim Cagle decided to pursue opening a brewery in 2012, it became the basis of the brewery’s name they opened two years later: Noon Whistle.

According to Kreiner, Noon Whistle started off as a session brewery, or a place where customers could find a drink that wouldn’t knock them off their barstools after a few pints.

“At first … we wanted to concentrate on beers that were 5% alcohol or under,” Kreiner said. “We weren’t finding as much of that beer as we wanted.”

The intended lower alcohol content in their beers coincides with their mission as brewers; to formulate and create beer that can be enjoyed all day long with friends and family.

“You can talk about different styles of art and ways people express themselves, well, this is the way I get to express myself—through beer,” Kreiner said. “Noon Whistle started off as a business that brings friends and family together … It’s a lot of fun when you get to make beer that brings people together in a social way.”

One of those beers was an American-style lager named ‘Bruski.’

“It’s a beer that I have been working on for a long time,” Kreiner said. “It’s an easy drinking lager that’s got a little bit of color to it so, it gives it a little bit more malt depth-ness to it and a little bit more flavor. It’s an easy drink on a cold day, warm day, you can drink this beer whenever.”

Kreiner and Noon Whistle won a gold medal for Bruski at the 2023 World Beer Cup, beating out more than 100 other competitors in the category competing to be the best American-style lager in the world.

“One thing that I think makes Noon Whistle unique is our consistency and we really want to represent that with our beer too,” said Joe Condon, marketing and creative director for Noon Whistle. “That way when people pick it up, they know that they’re getting a great product.”

For those interested in visiting Noon Whistle this summer, Condon said potential visitors can check out their website for upcoming news and events involving Noon Whistle.

If you’re interested in getting a hold on some Noon Whistle products, you can find them in beer and liquor stores throughout Chicagoland, but also online on their website as well.

The story behind this McHenry County brewery began over 15 years ago on the west coast.

Dan Payson, co-founder of Woodstock’s very own Kishwaukee Brewing Company, first started homebrewing in 2007 while he was in between jobs as an architect in Seattle.

“You know, people weren’t building around that time, so I ended up getting laid-off by a pretty large architecture firm,” Payson said, reflecting on his first beer making experiences. “I ended up finding a new hobby in homebrewing and fell in love.”

Payson eventually landed another job in the architecture industry, but continued to craft beer on the weekends, all in the sanctity of the 500-square-foot apartment he and his now-wife, Kara, split at the time.

But as time went on, Payson said it became clear that he wanted to pursue making beer as a career. Then one day, an opportunity presented itself.

“I got my feet wet at a local brewery in Seattle called Fremont Brewing,” Payson said. “I was helping on their bottling line. Then a few months went by, and I was offered a full-time brewing position at American Brewing Company.”

Payson stayed on with American Brewing Company until 2014, when he and Kara moved back to the Chicagoland suburbs.

From there, he took the head brewer job at Scorched Earth Brewing in Algonquin where he crafted beer recipes, put together equipment and helped train employees in the art of brewing, one of which would become a mainstay in the Kishwaukee brew house in present times.

“I started up with [Scorched Earth], wrote their recipes, set up new equipment, trained new employees on the production side,” Payson said. “It was actually there I met our current head brewer here at Kishwaukee, Mark Gress.”

Payson kept in contact with Gress over the next few years when Payson jumped to another craft beer operation, Crystal Lake Brewing.

“After I left Scorched Earth, I then went on to Crystal Lake Brewing and I was the head brewer there, working under Ryan Clooney,” Payson said. “I was their head brewer for three years, and then Kara and I were very adamant about getting our own actual brewery plan going that we talked about back in 2007.”

If they were to completely make the career change into the craft beer industry, the end goal for the Paysons was to always open their own brewery, which became a reality in early 2020.

“Those thoughts and ideas and feelings all came to fruition in March of 2020,” Payson said. “We broke ground on two acres of land in Woodstock, Illinois and built a 10,000-square-foot brewing facility with a 2,500-square-foot tap room, and a beer garden.”

The name Kishwaukee draws a direct influence from the locally-found Kishwaukee River — which also plays a major role on their personal branding, and the name choice behind their beers.

“We’re outdoors people, very environmentally conscious and sustainability conscious,” Payson said. “So when we were thinking of names, we had a bunch of crazy name ideas, but we went back to what our strong feelings are about the environment being a huge part of what Kishwaukee Brewing is, and we wanted to bring that awareness to our community.”

An environmental fun fact about the Kishwaukee River is that it’s a major migratory path for birds in Northwest Illinois, so Payson thought it would only be natural for some of their beers to be named after the birds that travel through the area regularly throughout the year, including the beer that won them a silver medal at the 2023 World Beer Cup: ‘Bufflehead Brown Ale.’

“we originally had called it just ‘Brown Ale,’” Payson said. “We got great feedback from our customers who were asking for it to be bottled, canned and on draft year-round because originally, it was only suppose to be a seasonal beer.”

With feedback so overwhelmingly positive, Payson roped in a Chicago-based design company named Conjure to create a new label and branding for the beer. The recipe never changed, but the name was altered to honor a breed of duck found locally.

“The recipe never changed … It’s always been the same,” Payson said. “The only thing that changed is we gave it a name, Bufflehead Brown.”

According to Payson, the Bufflehead Brown is a type of water fowl that migrates through the Kishwaukee area, which made it an ideal candidate to name a brown ale after.

“So with all the newer beers we’re coming out with — Bufflehead [Brown Ale], Sand Hill [Lager], Pollinator [Doppelbock] — we’re starting to get into the kind of essence of Kishwaukee and what the Kishwaukee River is,” Payson said.

Bufflehead Brown Ale, and other Kishwaukee beers, can be found at Costco’s, Binny’s, Garfield’s and Woodman’s locations throughout McHenry, Kane, DuPage and DeKalb Counties.

For those looking for future events involving Kishwaukee, they have an event planned down the line beginning Oct. 1, where $1 of every pint of Sand Hill Lager sold will be donated to the McHenry County Conservation District.

For other events, Payson said Chicagolanders can sign up for their newsletter to stay up-to-date on all things Kishwaukee Brewing Company.

“We started on a shoestring and we made it happen from there,” said Roaring Table Co-Founder Lance May.

A ‘Jack of all brews’ operation found in a strip mall nestled amongst the northwest suburbs of Chicagoland, Roaring Table Brewing Company is the smallest of the craft breweries on this list (they employ six full-time staff members), but they more than make up for any lack of size through the variety and creativity infused into their beer.

“We brew an incredibly wide range of beer styles,” said Beth May, Co-Founder and Marketing Director of Roaring Table. “This particular canning run from last week, we did a fruited sour IPA with lactose and vanilla, and then we also did a German-style pilsner, which are like completely different ends of the beer spectrum.”

Roaring Table’s penchant for variety melds both their branding and beers together, hence the joker’s cap atop the beer glass in their logo.

Roaring Table’s logo on the back of a T-shirt.

“There was an article a few years ago that called us a jack-of-all-trades, or the jack-of-all-brews,” Beth May said. “I though that was fun, like a really fun play on our jester. I thought that was … super relevant to the fact that we’re different than a lot of breweries because we do some much variety.”

One of those many eclectic beers that have graced the taps at Roaring Table was ‘Easy Hour,’ a silver medal award winner at the 2023 World Beer Cup.

According to Lance May, he’s always been drawn to the idea of creating a German altbier — the style in which Easy Hour was brewed.

“I’ve always been attracted to the concept of an altbier, which is the hometown beer of Dusseldorf, Germany,” Lance May said. “‘Alt’ is just old in German … When the lager revolution took off in the 19th century, Dusseldorf brewers said we’re not going to follow any trends, we’re going to stick with the old way of making beer.”

The old way of making beer in the 1800’s revolved around ale yeast, hence the name altbier. Lance May said it’s a style of beer they’ve made at Roaring Table on a number of occasions and they’ve gotten to a point where it’s one of the styles they’re most comfortable making.

Roaring Table’s silver medal award for Easy Hour from the 2023 World Beer Cup, placed aside a glass and can of the beer itself.

“I feel like we’ve gotten it pretty good, but it’s basically just a brown amber ale that’s dry, kind of crisp, yet flavorful,” Lance May said, speaking on the flavor profile of Easy Hour. “It’s just a style that not everybody has heard of, but once they experience it, they realize it’s actually a very approachable, pleasant beer.”

Easy Hour isn’t the only beer made by Roaring Table that has taken home an award from the World Beer Cup. Last year, they also won a bronze medal at the WBC for a classic saison named Beth.

“Saison’s are a category of beer that I’ve been pretty fond of for a pretty long time,” Lance May said. “So, it was nice to be validated with a medal for that one in 2020 as well.”

The only downside to Easy Hour and Beth is that they are not currently available. With Roaring Table’s constant changing variety of beers, once canning runs are done, the availability of each product depends on how well they sell (which is usually pretty quickly, in the case of their award-winning products).

There’s still plenty of other Roaring Table beers to tickle your fancy though, and if you’re not visiting their taproom in Lake Zurich, you can find Roaring Table beers in stock at Binny’s around the greater Chicagoland area.

For those interested in visiting Roaring Table, they have a six-year anniversary party planned for Sept. 23, and a calendar containing future events being held at the brewery can be found on Facebook.

Pollyanna (Lemont, St. Charles and Roselle)

Pollyanna Brewing Company’s Lemont location. (Credit: Brian Pawola)

If you talk to Pollyanna co-founder Brian Pawola about what inspired him to dive into the craft beer industry, he’ll tell you that one day, he just had enough of doctors.

“Before I got involved in the beer industry, I was working in software engineering in the medical field,” Pawola said. “Then, you know, I think I got yelled at by a doctor one too many times and I said, you know, I don’t want to do this anymore. So, I went to beer school.”

Beer school for Pawola started in Chicago, and took him to Munich, Germany, where he studied brewing at the Siebel Institute, a world-renowned school with campuses in Chicago, Munich and Montreal, known for educating craft brewers going as far back as 1872.

“The first part of the program I started here in Chicago,” Pawola said. “And then I went to Germany for about six months total across the whole program.”

With beer school under his belt, Pawola and co-founders Ryan Weidner and Ed Mulnar founded Pollyanna Brewing Company in September of 2014, and Pawola’s been churning out beers ever since.

“We’ve probably brewed around 200 different styles [since opening],” Pawola said.

Among the hundreds of different forays into creating craft beers stands ‘Nose Over Tail,’ a German-style maibock that took home a silver medal from the 2023 World Beer Cup.

Maibock translates to “May bock,” or “May desire,” in English, which is the time of year typically associated with the best time to drink a Maibock.

According to Pawola, Nose Over Tail is a stronger lager that is usually meant for when winter turns to summer, and Nose Over Tail’s flavor profile is reflective of that.

“It’s a German-style beer meant for the time of year where you start celebrating warm weather,” Pawola said. “It’s a malty, smooth beer with hints of caramel meant for springtime.”

But as Pawola hints at, since it is late June at the time of he publication of this article, Nose Over Tail enthusiasts will have to wait until early next spring to give it a try if they haven’t already.

In the meantime, if you’re still interested in checking out Pollyanna Brewing Company, they have an extensive list of events happening at their three locations in Lamont, St. Charles and Roselle on their website that you can see by clicking here.

The City of Chicago’s lone representative on this list calls the Beverly neighborhood home, and just celebrated their 10-year anniversary on the South Side.

“Neil Byers opened Horse Thief Hollow in February of 2013,” said Jacob Nelson, Head Brewer at Horse Thief Hollow. “We just had our 10-year anniversary, and since then, we’ve just been working on making great beer here.”

The motto at Horse Thief Hollow is, ‘handcrafted from pint to plate,’ and according to Nelson, is a guiding principle behind what has allowed them to be a successful brewery for more than a decade.

“We want everything to be handcrafted with a good attention to detail,” Nelson said. “And we want that to come through to the final product and for people to know that what you got, was handcrafted by your neighbors here at Horse Thief [Hollow].”

When Nelson spoke on the intended outcome of Horse Thief Hollow’s products, there was an added weight — or emphasis — in his tone. As it turns out, Nelson is a lifelong South Sider, and prides himself on being from the same neighborhood as the brewery he helps captain in the beer creation process.

“I grew up in this area, the Beverly-Morgan Park neighborhood area,” Nelson said. “This has been my home for almost all of my life.”

Looking back on how life’s dominoes fell, Nelson said it almost seemed as if he was meant to work at Horse Thief Hollow, due to circumstances surrounding its opening.

“I was super excited when I found out that there was going to be a brewery opening up in the neighborhood,” Nelson recalled. “I was 21 when it opened so, I was just getting into beer.”

Nelson said once he started learning about all of the possibilities in the beer world, he dove deep, became a self-described ‘beer nerd,’ and developed a friendship with the original head brewer at Horse Thief Hollow, who helped him cultivate his ambitions and guide him toward a career in the craft beer industry.

“I ended up befriending Dave [Williams], the original head brewer, and in lending a hand, I was just like, ‘hey, I just want to hang out and see what you do back there,’” Nelson said. “That developed into a friendship and that turned into him hiring me as an assistant brewer.”

Williams departed from Horse Thief Hollow in 2019 to start a brewery of his own back in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, and from there on out, Nelson has led the brewing operation at Horse Thief Hollow.

“I wasn’t really a home brewer, it was just really a passion and the proximity of it,” Nelson added. “It really worked out where I was in the right place at the right time.”

Right place, right time, attention to detail, and a constant desire to make great beer could all be considered ingredients contributing toward Horse Thief Hollow’s latest accomplishment—winning a gold medal for ‘Little Wing,’ the world’s best pilsner at the 2023 World Beer Cup.

“The beer was first developed around 2016,” Nelson said about Little Wing. “Neil [Byers] and our former head brewer Dave [Williams], they wanted to conceptualize a beer that’s easy drinking and approachable for everybody.”

The goal was to check all the boxes for hardcore craft beer fans, while also landing well with the casual beer drinker. After releasing the beer in 2016, Horse Thief Hollow kept this in mind, but continually made incremental changes. Over the years, they slightly altered the recipe several times, until they ultimately reached a point where they perfected their pilsner recipe.

“Ever since then, we’ve been tweaking and working on the recipe a lot,” Nelson said. “Very minor adjustments. The recipe is very important, but a lot of it too is the execution of the recipe.”

Horse Thief Hollow won a bronze medal for Little Wing during the 2020 World Beer Cup. Realizing they were just a few small tweaks away from getting to the pilsner mountaintop, all Nelson and crew had to do boiled down to a few minuscule adjustments to factors like pH and temperature at various points in the brew process to push themselves over the top.

“On brew day and throughout fermentation, you really have to be meticulous about all the minor details,” Nelson said. “[Little Wing’s] such a straight forward beer, that if there’s any mistakes in the brewing process, they’ll definitely show when it comes through.”

For those interested in trying Little Wing, you can find it on tap or in cans at the brewery itself in Beverly, or you can go to their website, where they have a map to help customers find stores where their products are sold.

When it comes to unique opportunities to visit, there’s also a page on Horse Thief Hollow’s website dedicated toward any upcoming special events planned.

Tighthead Brewing Company, founded in 2011 in Mundelein, was the brain child of a self-proclaimed ‘beer geek’ who gave the brewery its name based on his experience as a rugby player, shortly after calling it quits on a nearly two-decade-long career in corporate America.

“I played Rugby for about 13-and-a-half years,” said Bruce Dir, founder of Tighthead Brewing Company. “And I was a tight head prop, that’s a position in rugby. There’s no theme that runs through the brewery that ties it to rugby … but it meant something to me.”

Dir said that after spending 20 years of working white collar, where jobs would be reshuffled and companies would be reorganized ever so often — leading to him bouncing around, or even losing a job — it was time to take a leap of faith.

“I started home brewing back in ’92, you know, got married, had children and did it as a hobby,” Dir said, reflecting on his path into the craft beer industry. “After about 20 years in corporate America, [I] had gotten reorganized a couple of times and reorganized out of a job so, my wife and I decided that we always wanted to have our own business.”

For credibility purposes, Dir also attended the Siebel Institute, since being a home brewer — while fun — doesn’t do much in the way of helping prepare someone to make craft beer professionally.

Dir also admits that there were a number of fortuitous factors that played into Tighthead getting up and running, like his wife making an income that allowed for them to absorb start-up costs, and their first location being close to home so Dir could also continue to coach travel baseball for his kids.

“That was in 2010 … My wife had a pretty big job, which allowed me to do it,” Dir said of starting a craft brewery. “We were in Mundelein at the time and I wanted to be close … close enough to coach travel baseball and other different things.”

After getting his brewers degree from Siebel, Dir and his wife found commercial space in Mundelein, opened up Tighthead, and produced their first batch of beer on Sept. 14, 2011.

“I believe we were the 13th operating brewery in the state of Illinois,” Dir said. “I think there are now, over 300 total, somewhere around there.”

According to an article on Zippia, there were as many as 284 craft breweries in Illinois, as of Sept. 5, 2022.

Every year since — discounting the COVID year of 2020 — Tighthead has brewed around 3,000 barrels of craft beer annually, which today, features six permanent, year-round beers; two of which are award winners — Scarlet Fire (a gold medalist at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival) and Bear’s Choice (a bronze medal winner at the World Beer Cup).

According to Dir, Scarlet Fire was a part of the first set of beer they took to market in Sept. 2011, and all three are still available today.

“So, we have comfortably Blonde, an American blonde ale. Scarlet Fire, [which] is an Irish style red ale,” Dir said. “That beer won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest in 2018 … and then we did Irie IPA, which is a big west coast style IPA.”

Meanwhile, Bear’s Choice came about several years after Tighthead’s founding thanks to a series of circumstances that happened to Dir’s head brew master, Billy Oaks.

“I believe it was back in 2015, [Billy Oaks’s] wife was pregnant with their only child,” Dir said. “She loves IPA’s and Billy brews a really good IPA.”

But since Oaks’s wife couldn’t partake in alcohol consumption during her pregnancy, he decided to pivot and try something a little new — a West Coast IPA.

“Mosaic hops were really popular at the time, so he wanted to do something with mosaic [hops] and that’s where the ingredients for Bear’s Choice came from,” Dir said.

The name behind Bear’s Choice stems from two sources; the nickname Oaks’s wife’s parents used to call her growing up, and the love Tighthead Brewing has for the Grateful Dead.

“His wife’s parents used to call her ‘Bear,’ so that was kind of a family nickname,” Dir said. “Bear’s Choice, there was an album back in the 70’s where one of the producers or guys who did sound on the Grateful Dead’s tour, his name was Bear Owlsley. He would kind of dictate and put together ‘best of’ tapes because they recorded everything live and one of the albums was called ‘Bear’s Choice.’”

With ingredients set in place, and the name cemented by a family nickname combined with musical influence from one of rock’s most well-known eclectic bands in the 70’s and 80’s, Tighthead only had one last touch to add before putting Bear’s Choice out into the world.

“We released it, right after Billy and his wife had the baby,” Dir said. “That’s a long, long way of explaining it all, but it’s a cool story.”

If you’re looking for the right opportunity to come out and visit Tighthead Brewing Company, a tap room events page can be found on their website.

Outside of Tighthead Brewing Company, anyone looking to pick up Bear’s Choice — or any other beer from their selection — can find them in Jewel Osco’s and Mariano’s spread throughout Northern Cook and Lake Counties.

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