The Oxford Companion to Beer: a dreadful disaster?

My copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer is currently on its way to me from the US, but, alerted by the comments of others, I’ve been dipping into the book using the “look inside” facility on the website, and … well, here’s one tiny quote from the entry on “Bottles”:

In the United Kingdom the imperial pint (568 ml) remains a popular size …

This completely invented “fact” appears in an entry that was a mash-up of several separate pieces on bottles, including a couple by me, put together into one article apparently for space reasons. I was sent the revised entry to comment on, I pointed out the error, and still it went into print.

Unfortunately the “pint bottle remains popular in Britain” factoid looks to be appallingly far from an isolated example of “information” in the OCB being either made up or out of date or just wrong. Here’s a very small part of the entry on “Britain”:

When the Roman Empire reached Northern Europe … Britain was mostly forested and therefore unsuitable for growing grain.

No it wasn’t. Grain was growing in Britain from the Neolithic, that is the very beginning of agriculture in these islands. The Greek traveller Pytheas of Massilia visited Britain around 320BC and found the natives making a beverage from “grain”, and Cunobelin, king of the Catuvellauni around AD10, in the area of modern Essex and Hertfordshire, featured an ear of barley on his gold coins, suggesting that some or much of his kingdom’s wealth came from grain-growing.

Mead and spontaneously fermented cider would have been the predominant alcoholic drinks.

This is, again, just made up. In fact there’s very little or no evidence of cider-making in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain, (“cider” itself was a word introduced by the Normans) and evidence for mead-making is mostly or all post-Roman.

The Anglo-Saxons colonized Britain in the 4th century AD, and brought brewing with them.

There is widespread evidence of brewing in Roman Britain: the idea that it was introduced here by the Anglo-Saxons is utterly wrong. And the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived in Britain in the 5th century AD, not the fourth.

That’s all annoying because it’s introducing new inaccuracies into the history of beer: but what is really worrying is that myths I thought I had thrust a stake through eight years ago in Beer: The Story of the Pint are rising from the grave again, and being given life in what claims to be the acme of “scholarly detail and accuracy”.

Here’s some more from the OCB’s entry on “Britain”, this time on porter: “Developed as an alternative to mixing together old ale and younger beer” – no it wasn’t, it developed out of London Brown Beer, and had nothing to do with old ale – “porter is rumoured to have been perfected by Harwood’s brewery in the London district of Shoreditch in the 18th century.” What is this “rumoured to have been perfected”? There is not, nor ever has been, a “rumour”. The claim that Harwood invented/perfected porter rests on a couple of articles, one written in 1788 and one in 1802. It’s a claim that has been comprehensively kicked to death, most thoroughly by Dr James Sumner. “It drew its name from the ranks of porters who carried goods and worked in and around London’s markets.” Porter’s name has nothing to do with market porters. Even Wikipedia is getting that right now. “… Arthur Guinness was a Dublin brewer who adopted porter after seeing its popularity in London.” This is just made-up rubbish, again, when the facts are in numerous books about the history of Guinness: the St James’s Gate brewery started brewing porter, as did other Dublin brewers, because imported porter from England was taking an increasing share of the Dublin market. The Irish House of Commons set up a committee in 1773 to inquire into the decline of the country’s brewing industry, and heard that “the London brewers have now nearly engrossed the whole trade in Dublin.” That is why Guinness moved into porter brewing. “Stronger versions of the brew became known as ‘extra stout’ porters, eventually abbreviated to simply ‘stout'” – this is a complete misunderstanding of the terminology, and a garbling of the timeline. Strong porter was also known as brown stout, or stout porter. Even stronger porter might be called “double stout”. Guinness’s strongest beer, introduced around 1810, was originally called “Extra Superior Porter”. By 1835 it was called “Double Stout” and its name was only officially changed to “extra stout” in 1896. “… Porter’s supremacy in Britain lasted until the unlikely and much mythologized rise of India pale ale … no, porter was never challenged by IPA or bitter pale ales; what slowly replaced it in the public’s affection was mild ale. And while IPA’s rise has certainly been “much mythologised”, why was it “unlikely”? If that statement were in a student essay, the tutor would put a big ring around it, and mark the essay down for unsubstantiated and unexplained assertion-making.

Meanwhile, we have six errors – not just pedantic quibbles, but stuff that is completely wrong – in just two or three sentences about porter, when the correct information has been easily available for years. If this is the general level of the historical entries in the OCB (and I was simply briefly dipping in, rather than actually hunting for inaccuracies), then it will be an enormously damaging blow to those of us who have made huge efforts to try to correct the centuries (literally) of myths and misinformation that have grown around the history of beer.

Why so damaging? Because people will carry on repeating claims like the one under the entry “English hops” that “King Henry VIII … forbade the use of hops outright at his court” believing that if it’s in the Oxford Companion to Beer it must be right, although writers have been pointing out for a very long time that no, that’s completely wrong: Henry VIII (or, rather, his court officers) forebade the use of hops in ale brewed for the royal household by the royal ale brewer. No restriction on the use of hops was applied to the royal beer brewer. And I will be regularly reduced to foaming-at-the-mouth fury at reading this crap again.

Here’s another one, found while simply flipping through, from the “History of Beer” section:

“By the early 800s, the monks of the monastery of St Gallen in Switzerland had built the first full-scale brewing operation in Europe … the brewery’s floor plan, drawn up in 820, would be essentially recognizable to any modern brewer.

That is total garbage: it’s based on the completely inaccurate misapprehension that the so-called Plan of St Gall represented what was actually on the ground at St Gall Abbey. It didn’t: to write as if it did shows a complete lack of proper scholarly research. To then claim, even if the Plan of St Gall genuinely did represent the true scale of brewing at the monastery, that this was “the first full-scale brewing operation in Europe” is utterly unjustifiable claptrap. There is little or no evidence of the size of monastic brewing operations in the early medieval period, and we have nothing to judge the relative size of the brewing set-up shown on the Plan of St Gall by. Zero marks again there.

But aren’t I indulging in polemical exaggeration in suggesting that the OCB could be a “dreadful disaster”? No, I don’t believe so. The lack of proper research shown by even the small number of examples I’ve quoted here, and the repetition of inaccuracies that they represent, threaten to wipe out much or all of the advances that have been made over the past 10 or so years in getting the history of beer into proper, accurately researched shape, and all the errors of the past that the OCB is repeating will be given the authority of the Oxford University Press. To me, that’s disastrous.

Fortunately, Alan McLeod, the Canadian beer blogger, has started a repository for general OCB E&O, addenda, corrigenda and corrections at the new OCB Commentary Wiki site. I’m extremely grateful to Alan for this, not least because it will mean I can put any other errors I find up there, rather than having to clog up this blog with them.

For a discussion of the reaction to the above post, please go here.

0 thoughts on “The Oxford Companion to Beer: a dreadful disaster?

  1. I have not yet had a chance to look through it, but as an ex-archaeologist, I would have been jumping up and down over the first few errors you highlighted. I hope a corrected edition appears in the very near future.

  2. This is just a “quibble” (Pete Brown’s wording from his post about this book entitled “The Most Essential Beer Book You Can Buy”… a sad state when this is the “most essential”), why should a book that is scholarly in nature actually get their facts correct?

    The more I read about the book the lower and lower on the “get list” it goes.

      1. HA!

        I like how Pete got all bent out of shape with the history of cider (ie Stella’s Cidre) and did a whole post on that… but when the “essential beer book” messes (want to swear but fraid that would get filtered) up British brewing history it is just a “quibble”.

  3. Thank you Martyn. I haven’t gotten a copy of this book yet, but I have increasingly apprehensive as examples of inaccuracies, bias, and now just outright sloppiness have come out. Given the hype, pretense and price of this volume, this is all very disappointing. Oliver has done some amazing things for the craft beer world in the US, but this appears to be an example of the reason we have professional writers write and edit “definitive” books.

  4. Wow, when reading the history of Porter and Stout I could only imagine that in 200 years some blogger is going to be doing the same thing regarding Cascadian Dark Ale vs. Black IPA. Thanks for the information, I was considering asking for the book for Christmas but I think I will pass now.

  5. I think the scope of this book perhaps doomed it from the start. There are so many well written and researched books on all aspects of beer history and brewing available today; yours included, so as to make such a heady beer encyclopedia seem somewhat redundant and irrelevant.

    The most glaring problem with having with so many scattered omissions and inaccuracies is that it calls into question the validity of the factually correct entries.

    What sort of vetting process was used by the editors to select contributors? Some seem spot on, while others raised eyebrows.

  6. What disturbs me the most is the fact that you appear to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Of course there will be errors, every book has them, that is why there are 2nd editions. Some are probably even horrific, and yes, I have to say that not having editors that understood beer edit was a problem. One thing about the academic world is we have peer review, which for the most part works extremely well (there are still “politics” in some fields running fiefdoms).

    All of the articles I wrote include where I referenced the material, and you can judge for yourselves whether or not they are

    1. Yes, but as anyone in academia knows, these sort of types of texts are often NOT subject to peer review. For book chapters I’ve written in the past for medical texts, the only review done was via the publisher and editor.

  7. Well that’s off the old christmas list…

    Shame, I really had high hopes for the book. Between yours and Robsterowski’s notes, it’s tipped it from the list. I was close to purchase, purely for the correct parts… Alas…


  8. I’m going to quote myself (as originally posted on Alan’s blog) on this one:

    Craig:It seems to me that someone more qualified in writing about beer should have been the Editor-in-Chief on this one. No offense to Garrett, but do you think the Oxford Press would have Al Pacino as the EIC on the The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, just because he had good run in the Merchant of Venice.

    To which the “general” reply was: Garrett Oliver is a great author and a great brewer—He was the best choice!

    My rebut: Again, no disrespect to Garrett, and I agree, the Brewmaster’s Table is a great book, but my point is, authorship and the work of an editor-in-cheif are separate beasts.

    Now three weeks after Alan’s initial kick-off of the book review, it’s become apparent that what this book needed was a true editor, not a celebrity brewer. I understand that everyone might not agree with every aspect of what is written in this book. You can’t make everybody happy all the time, but there are some big mistakes and omissions. If you write a book catered to a niche group of people, you have to expect that they will call you on everything. Don’t believe me? Google “Han Shot First.” If you decide to compile the definitive guide to whatever, make sure you get your facts straight—Especially if there is even a slight chance that what you write will represent “the truth” down the road.

    And yes I did spell chief incorrectly in the original post, as well.

    1. “And yes I did spell chief incorrectly in the original post, as well.”

      See, now that’s editorial transparency.

      In all seriousness, you’re quite right, Craig. I think we all assumed – as concerned with details as Oliver is – that he would have the right help. Indeed, the fact that he consulted writers like Martyn seemed to indicate that.

      Perhaps everyone involved will learn lessons for the second edition.

    2. I think Garrett should stick to watching over his own brewery. Editing a book may have been why Brooklyn Brewing put out a pumpkin beer that was so over ladden with diacetyl (liquid movie theater fake butter) that I poured it down the drain. It’s a good thing that I love Black Chocolate Stout so much that I will keep drinking their other beers.

      1. I’m not ragging on Oliver, In fact, I’d say he’s actually a decent writer. OUP is the one who needs to take responsibility — they hired him to do a job he was not experienced enough to do. With a project of this scale, a professional editor familiar with beer writing would have been a better choice.

          1. Good writing, perhaps, but his articles about Belgian beer (there are several) read like they were researched on Ratebeer.

  9. I totally agree Martyn. This book will cause great damage to beer scholarship. I’m just waiting for the first time someone quotes one if its errors when arguing with me.

    The problem seems to have been poor selection of contributors for the beer style and historical articles. And inadequate checking of the articles produced. How anyone could think Horst Dornbusch was suitable to write about Scottish beer is beyond me.

    Some of the references are a joke. One article by Ray Daniels lists two of his own books as the only sources.

  10. I’m terrified what I might have got wrong in my book! But it’s great you’re speaking out Martyn & perhaps an email to the publishers may yield some revision work for you, sounds like they could do with a historically-accurate eye

  11. Like you, I’ve only seen it through Amazon’s Look Inside function but this snippet from page 204 caught my eye:

    “Deuchar’s IPA, a pleasant beer, is not actually an IPA at all”

    Maybe someone (perhaps Horst Dornbusch, their expert on Scottish beer) should phone the brewery and tell them to either rename it or stop brewing it.

  12. Thank you for the commentary. It is good to see that there is someone refuting beer mythology and offering facts instead. Now if you could do something about all the Americans who think that the beer shipped to the USA from Canada is different from the beer they have in Canada. I’ve even shown people a letter from Labatt’s brewing that the beer is the same, and they still don’t believe me.

  13. […] Martyn Cornell, who hasn’t even received the book yet, found tons of errors just by sifting throug…. Cornell is a seasoned beer history veteran, so some of the errors he found might be new to a lot of you (myself included), but some of the errors he points out have long been known as myths, documented as fact in this book. In the “Britain” entry, it says porter was “Developed as an alternative to mixing together old ale and younger beer,” when the truth is that porter was developed out of London Brown Beer, which was subjected to improved techniques (more hopping, better storing, etc.), leading to an improved beer. […]

  14. I noticed the stuff about the imperial pint bottle remaining popular. Quite aside from not being true, it contradicts what is said in your article FURTHER DOWN THE SAME PAGE. How can something like that go unnoticed?

  15. Ironically, my copy had arrived just yesterday as this post was generated by Martyn, however I haven’t had any time to peruse of the contents other than glance , it’s a big book, and I only paid $38 USD for it through Amazon.
    My first impressions are disbelief that when writing such a compendium of knowledge on beer, and beer history, that the author(s) or editor wouldn’t have even consulted or gathered input from two of the most respected beer historians in my opinion ( although both gentlemen are credited in the contributors pages, Pattinson/Cornell). I am certain I can learn plenty from this book, however ,like everything else, if you want the whole story …well you know.

    Oh, and where’s the definition for Zythophile ?, it isn’t listed ? doesn’t that mean this site has no relevance to beer history , but the “tickers” have their spot ?

  16. I have been looking forward to this book for a while. I have the Oxford Companion to Wine and it is a constant reference for anyone studying or working as a professional in the wine trade (as i do). I feel that as craft beer and the interest in beer as a whole really required a book of similar stature. I bought my copy and have been reading lots of random entries and poring through it. It is still a useful book where one can find lists and info on hop and barley varieties, as well as some well researched entries with good references.
    But… when i see an entry and the source reference is a recent article from the same author, alarm bells start ringing. Sometimes the source is a very out of date publication where, however well intentioned, the information has since been proved erroneous, often by Martyn’s own work as well as Ron Pattinson’s historical research. I also (as Martyn did) see some basic general historical inaccuracies, not about beer per se, but British history in general. I too noticed the wrong century for the Anglo-Saxon invasion / migration, as well as the “anglo – saxon word ale being imposed on the English” er the English are Anglo-saxon.The problem is that, when we spot these errors confidence in the whole book is put into question, and i’m certain there’s some great and correct information there, but how do i trust the fact checking?

    It is a start, as a reference guide is much needed but if I was a teacher, I would be putting ” Must try harder” at the end of my report.

    1. Out of interest, how was the first edition of the companion to wine? I’m guessing it was before the Internet made pointing these things out to fellow readers relatively straight forward? Just interested as to whether there were well-known clangers in that as well?

      Annoyingly I parted with my £21 on amazon just before I read the posts about the difficulties…

  17. When we were emailed about this a few months back, we sent them a link to your myths page and said: “It doesn’t repeat any of these myths, does it? If it does, its credibility will be shot.” They went away and checked and came back to say, phew, no, none of those myths are in the Companion.


    We’re still enjoying it, albeit knowing that we have to take the time to double check any facts therein which we might later rely on in court. We appreciate its ambition and the fact that it is something new in the world of beer books but, as several others have said, look forward to the much-corrected second, third or fourth editions.

    1. The “appreciation” of its ambition is a cop out. If it was too much of a task, they should have cut back. When I see Oxford Publishing I expect a high level of research, not a “we have to take the time to double check any facts”. As of now it is just a cash grab… “craft beer is hot so lets make a big book about it”.

      1. As we’ve said elsewhere, in appreciating its ambition, we really mean that it has the potential to be a game changer: for the last 20 years, beer writers have turned out 300, 750, 1001 beers to drink before you die books, one after the other, or “complete guides” which weren’t. This is much more comprehensive in its scope (if erratic in its accuracy) and will, hopefully, trigger more, better books of the same type.

        One example: the Eyewitness Guide to Beer covers hops in something like three pages, mostly pictures. This book has separate entries for 70 varieties of hops as well as (not very accurate) entries on the history of hops, hop extract, and the specific component chemicals of hops.

  18. The errors and omissions are probably more the result of the modern publishing industry than anything else. Nowadays, publishers notice a trend and decide a book must be published on it now – and cheaply. Research is rushed and there’s no time to fact checking – it’s little wonder there’s so many reported mistakes.

  19. The big software companies realised a long time ago that it was cheaper to release a new version full of bugs and let the users do the detecting rather than pay someone hard cash to make sure it’s squeaky clean. Looks like the same practice is now part of the nonfiction publishing business – you guys all seem more than ready to supply the thousands of hours of unpaid expert proofreading for the 2nd version !

  20. My feeling is that the book seemed to get delayed and there might have been a rush on to get it published. It is still great to see this kind of work being done for beer and despite some innaccuracies I’m sure there is more correct info than incorrect by a long way. I think the main problem was with styles and history. Some of the entries were clearly not written by an expert and hopefully they will be remedied in the next edition. I still enjoy leafing through it and already use it to check out brewing terms that I’m unfamiliar with used on blogs like this and Ron Pattinson’s.

    We all learn from our mistakes and a greater tragedy would be if the OCB doesn’t learn from theirs and repeat the mistakes in the next edition.

  21. Not to clutter your comments section with complaints, but the “Biere de Mars” entry suggests that “Northern Brewer” and “Brewer’s Gold” are Belgian hops. Both English, no?

  22. It appears Mr. Oliver didn’t take too kindly to your criticism…

    I don’t post this here to stir things up by any stretch of the imagination, it’s actually because I took exception with something he said and wanted to mention it. In your post, you criticize this statement “… Porter’s supremacy in Britain lasted until the unlikely and much mythologized rise of India pale ale,” saying the use of the word “unlikely” is “unexplained assertion making.”

    Then Oliver said: “No doubt Mr. Cornell, having been there personally in the late 1700s, found the rise of IPA to be very likely indeed. In fact, by now I feel certain that he predicted it himself in the broadsheets.”

    Cute, but he still doesn’t explain why the rise of IPA was “unlikely.” You were inquiring as to why it would be, which, judging by the content of the book and of Oliver’s response, appears to be a pretty fair question to ask. Nowhere in your post did you claim the rise of IPA to be “likely,” just that there is no reason to believe it was “unlikely.”

    Understood that this is nitpicky and maybe I’m even putting too much thought into this, but I noticed it, and it bothered me.

  23. I just mentioned this on Alan’s site: Garrett should have contacted you directly, Martyn, rather than airing his, shall I say, disappointment with this post on someone else’s blog. He may also be overlooking that your critique of the OCB is not a critique of him.

  24. […] Unfortunately, what he’s read so far has made Martyn Cornell angry (a bit too angry, maybe). Garrett Oliver, who edited the companion, seems to have taken it personally (it wasn’t, but then the book is his baby) and has responded with sarcasm and a point-by-point rebuttal. And Martyn has come back to that in the comments here. Yeesh. This could run and run. […]

  25. Wow, Garrett came off pretty bad in that response. I like the way he cherry picked certain complaints of yours to weakly refute while ignoring the ones he clearly couldn’t.

  26. […] But then the historians got hold of the book. A few inconsistencies came to light; someone got the Anglo Saxon invasion of Britain in the wrong century or something – not a massive problem, really. Although the OUP crest is on the spine, this book very definitely has an American backbone. However, very soon the two beer historians I do rate highly – Martin Cornell and Ron Pattinson – really cast serious doubts, with Martin even calling it a “Dreadful disaster”. […]

  27. I think part of the blame should shore firmly on the shoulders of the beer community itself. For the most part, the people chosen to edit entries ARE, in fact, those that a majority of the community deems the experts. Yet, their scholarship is still quite mediocre. Why is the scholarship of beer experts, in general, so mediocre? Why do those whose scholarship is of high quality, in general, choose to ignore the study of beer?

  28. I mentioned this on another post, but it’s probably worth repeating here, given that the discussion is still ongoing. It seems there there is no central, peer-reviewed place for ‘real’ beer scholarship to come together (and by ‘real’ I simply mean papers and articles aimed at a scholarly community – they could easily be distilled for consumption by the general public later, after a goodly amount of debate and review).

    Would there be any interest in starting an open-access journal to publish beer history? I’d be happy to help kick things off if a good core group of initial editors and reviewers volunteered to get involved. It would be great to have these sorts of discussions long before they make their way into works for the general public, and it would give historians a reason to delve deeper into beer history if they had a recognized place to publish.

    1. The Journal of the Brewery History Society is peer-reviewed and has a heavyweight editorial board (admittedly I’m on it, but I’m one of the very few people on it who’s not a doctor or a professor). But as it says on the tin, the Brewery History Society mostly covers the history of breweries rather than the history of beers and brewing, and they’re somewhat different things.

  29. True enough (and I do like browse the archive there, you have some fine pieces there), but I’d love to see something a little more general; it’s a shame we can’t all be 18th century antiquarians who get to delve into a huge variety of topics.

  30. As a former head brewer and amateur beer historian I can only agree with Martin in that this book is not as accurate as Wikipedia and I wouldn’t use it in any shape and form for any kind of authoritative research. It is so littered with inaccuracies as to be not fit for purpose.
    Forget how big it is or how long it took to compile – that is in no way a hallmark of quality. Garrett Oliver should withdraw it from sale and review this before his reputation suffers any more from this shoddy attempt.

  31. Apparently some poor work from the OUP which has an undermining effect on the whole. Having read Garret’s response on the OCB wiki he appears to be highmindedly unapologetic for the basic errors Martyn Cornell ably and helpfully identifies.

    As an example Garrett writes: “Regarding the subject “Bottles”, Mr. Cornell rails about a comment that the UK pint bottle is still on shelves, however just yesterday one of the UK’s top beer writers wrote me to say that “I see them (pint bottles) every time I go to the supermarket, which would suggest they’re still ‘popular’.””

    Happily this serendipitous and timely email satisfies Mr Garrett as to the prevalence of pint bottles in th UK but ancedote should not be regarded as the basis of sound and scholarly research nor should it be relied upon. A cursory glance at the internet reveals the case to be very different to Mr Garrett’s and the Top UK Beer Writer’s assertions. Of the 1382 beer related product lines produced by searching for ‘beer’ on the website only 14 instances of beer sold in measures of 568ml where identified across five major supermarkets. All were lagers and all were sold in cans. The 14 instances were composed of seven different products, Carlsberg, Carling, Stella the usual suspects as one might imagine.

    Failure to substantiate even to the most basic facts is worrying in a work holding itself out to be scholarly but then one might forgive Garrett for confusing half litre bottles, of which there are many in the UK, and pints; one well remembers NASA’s ill fated Mars Climate Orbiter.

    What is more troubling is the mangling of history, particularly British history, however this is not a new phenomenon to emanate from America and not something with which the esteemed editor should congratulate himself.

    If I understand the context correctly it is suggested that Britons drank mead and cider prior to the Roman invasions. Quite how pre-Roman Britons were guzzling down cider when it was the Romans themselves who introduced apples into Britain remains to my mind, if not Mr Garrett’s, a mystery.

    The commonly accepted date by historians for the departure of the Romans from Britain is 410 AD or the 5th century as is commonly understood after which time the Anglo-Saxon invasions began. Again one must forgive Garrett for muddling his ordinals, he is after all a brewer and not scholar, but then that rather sums up ones misgivings.

    All that said there must be much merit in the work and one looks forward to the second edition where one hopes such wrinkles are ironed out and whilst there’s veritas in vino it’s rather a pity the same can’t entirely yet be said of beer.

  32. Speaking as an ex-archaeologist (one trained in both Britain and America, no less), we don’t really talk about an Anglo-Saxon ‘invasion’ as such anymore…and the archaeological evidence for what pre-Roman Britons were drinking is fairly varied and is finally getting more attention, although there plenty of shelves, boxes and drawers full of (hopefully not overcleaned) potsherds in museums, universities and local archaeology units waiting to be analyzed to shed further light on it, especially since there were probably considerable regional differences. I’ve also seen it argued that apples came before the Roman invasion via trade routes (let’s recall people were coming to Britain from the Mediterranean and beyond to get Cornish tin since at least the Bronze Age), although it’s been a while since I looked at the most recent journals, so I’m not sure how accepted that is these days.

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