Brew Dudes

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Secondary Fermentation

Secondary fermentation is a tricky term.  It is used many times to describe a conditioning phase for beer, wine, cider, etc. but a true secondary fermentation would happen only if a new fermenting microbe was added to the beer (for example, brettanomyces) or more fermentable material is added to the beer for yeast (for example, honey) to consume.

Tips on Starting a Secondary Fermentation

  • Anytime you open up your fermentor, you want to be careful not to introduce any microbe that may cause off flavors or other problems
  • Make sure you sanitize any packet or instrument that you are using before you open the fermentor
  • Check the manufacturer’s instructions of any packet of yeast or cultured bacteria to ensure your addition will be successful
  • If you are adding other fermentables like fruit, honey, or other sugars to the fermentor, plan your process so that you can add it as quickly as possible
  • Once the addition is complete, monitor the progress of you secondary fermentation as they can be more vigorous than the primary one so check on it often to avoid messy situations

If you are not attempting to trigger a secondary fermentation, you are most likely looking to add a conditioning phase to your brew. This phase isn’t necessary for many beer styles but let’s discuss when you should follow this procedure.

Should you use a secondary fermentor?

If you are asking this question and you are not adding anything to the finished beer, you are asking if you need to condition beer in a separate vessel before bottling or kegging, not if you need to have a secondary fermentation.

For most ale styles that do not have a high starting gravity, a secondary conditioning phase in a separate vessel is not necessary. In our experience, it does not improve the quality of an ale with a starting gravity less than 1.070.

Some sources state that one of the reasons to have a conditioning phase after primary fermentation is to get the beer to clear.  The truth is, there are many things you can do to increase your chances for non-hazy beer before primary fermentation.

These steps include:

  1. Adding Irish Moss or Whirlfloc during the boil, using as directed
  2. Employing a 75-90 minute boil as lengthening the boil time beyond 60 minutes ensures a really great and complete hot break to denature many haze forming proteins
  3. Using a wort chiller after the boil to chill your beer rapidly to coagulate haze producting proteins – this coagulation is called a cold break and when the proteins bind and fall out of your wort, you can rack clearer wort into your fermentor

By following any if not all of these techniques, you will be well on your way in your quest for clearer beer without the need for a conditioning phase.

Another point to keep in mind after primary fermentation, the beer is ready to move to the next phase – kegging or bottling.  Either phase can have a condition element to it to help you get to clear beer nirvana.

If you are kegging your beer, after the transfer from the fermentor, chill the keg down in your fridge or keezer and then start your carbonation process with pressurized CO2. In a week or two of conditioning and force carbonating, you will be drinking clear beer.

If you are bottling your beer, prime and cap your beer and keep it somewhere where typical room temperatures last all day long.  After two weeks, your beer should be carbonated.  Once it’s carbonated, you can condition the beer in the bottle by storing it in the fridge for another two weeks if you want to have clear beer.  If you don’t want to be patient, you can start drinking it then.

So for most ale styles, you can skip the secondary and still get clear beer.

For lager styles, using a secondary condition phase is a necessary step.

Secondary Fermentation

Read this post about how and how long to lager your beer.

Check out our post on primary fermentation as well.

We hope you learned something from this post about secondary fermenation and secondary conditioning phase. There is more information about this topic around the internet but we hope that our little slice of it helped you out.

Leave a comment below and Brew On!

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47 Comments

  1. Travis

    I always use a secondary. The reason is that with a 6 1/2 gallon bucket, there is the potential for me to get oxidized beer if I let it sit for 2-3 weeks with that much head space (if I take some samples or do anything to break the seal). Also, there is value to separating the beer from the dead old yeast for a long hold. This is particularly important when lagering.

    That’s why I secondary.

    Cheers!

  2. Travis:
    When lagering you may want to get the beer off the excess trub, but I am not a lager expert so I can’t speak to that (yet).

    For the majority of ale fermentations, 2-3 weeks gets the job done and the beer is ready.
    If a brewer is making an ale that requires some sort of long condition, using a second vessel makes sense. And in reality that is what I am saying in my post. Many brewers say that they don’t do secondary, they go right to a keg. In my opinion, that is a secondary, it’s just happening at a colder temp because most of us keggers move that beer into the keg fridge rather than let it sit in ambient temp with the “traditional” secondary fermentor step.

    I have let beer sit in a plastic bucket for up to two months. The head space is all CO2 as I didn’t mess with the beer or open the lid. I had no detectable levels of oxidation in the beer. Now, I did store it cold as it was in feburary and march that I let this happen (a year ago). I was worried that the beer would be somewhat oxidized from the plastic bucket AND I was concerned about autolysis of the yeast. Neither of which were a problem despite sitting on all the original trub (albeit at cold temps).

    And to your last point, I don’t know what kind of yeast you are using but at the end of my fermentations the yeast in my bucket is not “dead old yeast”. It’s extremely healthy dormant yeast that just finished a batch of beer. It’s better than any yeast you can buy at the store. If it was old dead yeast repitching wouldn’t be a viable option. The percentage of dead cells in a yeast cake should be less than 1%. And in my experience, not all that 1% undergoes autolysis, so it has a very minimal impact on the beer. My two month primary blunder as a great example.

  3. Ted

    Hello,

    First of all I want to agree with pretty much everything you said in the post. For the majority of quick fermenting ales (that don’t require dry hopping, other flavor additions, or extended aging), secondary vessels don’t do anything beneficial. In fact, they only present potential problems like contamination and oxidation. If you are pouring a new batch over a yeast cake , then you may need to rack the beer if there’s no time for bottling on brewday.

    I just wanted to add a couple things. For those who bottle, just make sure to rack carefully so as not to pick up sediment. Also its good to pour the beer correctly so you won’t get any sediment in the glass. In other words, don’t rock the bottle back and forth, and just perform one gradual and continuous pour.

    You can let the primary sit for quit a long time before off flavors become noticeable. There are many other stages in the process that present more adverse problems. Hi Travis, I just wanted to say that it is best to let the beer sit and not to be inquisitive of gravity, taste, or scents during primary fermentation. What lies above the new beer is a protective layer of CO2. Also, that Nut Brown you tried, only sat in primary, it was bottled, and it came out pretty darn clear…right? In fact, my latest beer…the Quinoa Lager only sat in primary, and when it was done, I just dropped the temp for a couple weeks…no problem.

    Depending on the yeast strain, the primary vessel can be crystal clear after 2 weeks, or it still may be slightly active (British strains and some other I suppose). If there are still bubble rising, that means sediment could still be circulating around.

    Lastly, I haven’t really had cloudy beers since converting to all grain brewing. That could be another topic though.

    This is a topic that comes up a lot, so I hope it helps that you posted this entry. Check ya later.

  4. Mike

    Generally I think the more you fuss with the beer, more chance for something to happen. That something is contamination and oxidation. Also, I think we’re all in such a hurry to get drinking we move the beer too soon. I stopped doing secondaries a couple years ago and just let my beer do its thing for 2-3 weeks. It certainly didn’t hurt anything and I think it improved my beer. One thing for sure, it’s less time working (cleaning, sanitizing, racking) and more time drinking. 🙂

  5. Just out of curiosity, if the recipe specifically calls for a secondary, i.e. your Marzen ale which I am brewing in secondary now, the secondary still does some good, right? When we pulled the beer from ye olde ale pail, the gravity was still at 1.019, and still tasted rather sweet, which would seem to indicate to me that it was still fermenting. Then again, this beer is only the second batch I’ve ever made and the first that used a secondary. Once we bottle it, and check the gravity again, it will be interesting to note if the gravity has gone down further, if so, then secondaries do indeed ferment.

  6. I think the answer to your question is in your post. I don’t recommend transfering a beer to secondary if it isn’t done. So a gravity reading of 1.019 may not be done fermenting. I’d recommend checking that gravity a couple times in primary on consecutive days, if the gravity is changing then its best to leave it in the primary until it stops changing. When using healthy yeast its not uncommon or unreasonable to leave beer in the primary for two weeks.
    A eacondary will indeed ferment if the beer goes in there not complete. Moving beer of the primary yeast cake too early can do more harm than leaving in on the cake for several weeks.
    Employing a secondary fermenter is useful to clear our some more yeast sediment. The spirit of my secondary post shows that ‘if it works for you then do it’ mentality. When using a good flocculating yeast I find that two weeks in primary is more than enough finish fermenting and clear the beer.
    Ideally secondary should occur when fermentation is COMPLETE and at a colder temperature than the primary ferment. This is essentially what I do with my kegging set up. Its just that most people don’t consider that a secondary, even though its the same process that people who do use a seconday are doing.

  7. An interesting article! I usually go for a secondary, but a handful of times I’ve been overcome by events and ended up kegging directly from the primary. I have to say that I’ve never noticed a significant change in flavor. I think there are some cases where a secondary is still a good idea, but you put together a great article.

  8. dvdfrnz

    Half the pleasure of homebrewing is the visual aspect. I secondary because I like to visit my fermenting daily and look at the progress. It calms the nerves and relieves stress. I can’t fathom fermenting in plastic buckets and straight to keg. I use clear glass carboys for first and second fermentations, and use clear bottles for bottling. Mesmerized by the visual.

  9. SourDoh

    dvdfrnz,
    Dude, I hope you’re careful to keep those clear bottles out of the sun; that’s just asking for skunky beer. I once heard it said that at a commercial brewery, you can tell when the head of marketing has more pull than the brewmaster because they are using clear bottles.

  10. Stephen

    I recently bought a kit that includes a secondary plastic carboy. My thinking was, if we brew our first beer and let fermentation take place ( around 7 days or so) then transfer to the secondary, it would free up the primary for another batch. Does anyone see much of a problem with that? I am new to brewing in 5 gallon containers( started with a smaller kit). Also, if we use the secondary should I keep it at a lower temp and if so how low? (BTW I am using an ale bases kit) for cooling the beer we would be trying to use a wine fridge so it would be easy to regulate the temp.
    Thanks

  11. Stephen: Welcome to the hobby!
    I’d recommend letting the beer go at least 10 days in primary before moving it to the secondary. But yes your idea of using the ‘secondary’ carboy to free up the primary is an expert idea. As always regulating temperature is one of the best ways to get your beer to come out top notch. I’d focus on regulating the primary ferment before I’d worry about keeping the secondary cool. Just put the secondary in a basement, a cold closet or something like that and you’ll be fine.
    BREW ON!

  12. Scott

    I’ve read over and over about movng the beer to a cooler temp but have not sceene what temp you move it to. Can you throw down some ale temps. Thanks!

  13. Sure. I kept my Irish Red at 40° for 2 weeks and it helped to clarify it.

    I think between 40° and 55° are good conditioning temps for ales.

  14. Dan

    Hi all,

    Reading over the comments and slowly getting acquainted with all of the ‘brew speak’. Just bought a kit a few days ago and brewed up an american ale but made a couple mistakes. First, It said to have a 2.5 gallon wort (to boil for an hour) but I used 3.5 gallons instead on accident. Then after it was done boiling (about 70 minutes) I strained it into the primary (because the directions said to avoid transferring the sediment). The final wort volume was reduced by about a 1.5 gallons to a total of around 2 gallons (wasn’t expecting such a large reduction volume) and also I don’t if i was supposed to strain the wort or not (there was a pretty good amount of suspended sediment). Followed all other directions to the T (added about 3 gallons for 5 gallon total) and it’s been in the primary for about 3 days. Also the temperature in my house has been a little warm lately, mid to high 70’s for a day or so.

    Any thoughts as to how I may have sabotaged my batch?! This is my first brew so I’m expecting the worst, lol.

    Also: if I did put it into a secondary glass carboy, could I just transfer it via the bottom valve into the carboy, or not because it would come into contact with the air.

    Greatly appreciate any info!

  15. Andrew

    I just brewed up my first batch, an IPA. It’s been fermenting for 7 days so far and I’d like to follow the no secondary and go right to keg after 2-2.5 weeks. My question is – How to keg ferment? I just bought a used kegerator and will be getting a corny keg with fittings etc. Once the beer’s in the keg I’m confused what the next step is.

    Do I add pressure immediately and if so how much?
    Should the beer sit for a while in the fridge prior to being drank and does the pressure stay the same indefinitely or do you change it prior to drinking?

    Mike, Can you please elaborate on your process I guess?

    Thanks a lot!

  16. Sam

    I just brewed an IPA. I kept everything in the primary fermenter for 6 weeks and then bottled afterwards. End result was a great tasting beer, crystal clear, at around 4.8%. Still working on rounding out the flavours with a bit more dextrose and would like to introduce some more aroma on the nose. (might try Hallertau as late additions this time).

    I agree with comments above, the more you muck with it, the more unwanted tastes and biotics will appear.

    Heres cheers!

  17. Larry Tate

    Guys,

    I’m with you on skipping the “true” secondary…Jamil Zainacheff and John Palmer don’t secondary anymore either.

    QUESTION: During your cold temp conditioning, what temps are you using? Are you staying within the low temp range of the yeast or are you crashing it down to 40 or so?

    And are you leaving your carbonation on during this entire phase (or just enough to seal the keg)?

    Thanks,

    Larry, from NH

  18. Hi Larry,

    I am able to get my refrigerator temperatures to 35°F for cold conditioning/lagering. I think anything between right above freezing to 40°F is good for this phase.

    Since I still bottle my brew, I don’t know about what Mike does in terms of carbonation. I believe he just uses enough to seal the keg. I made a cream ale one summer and I cold conditioned it in his fridge. After two months, he carbonated it.

    I would carbonate after conditioning.

  19. Fernando

    I am a Milwaukeean making my first batch of beer. An amber ale from Northern Brewer. I’m using a plastic pail for primary fermentation, and its sitting on my basement floor, probably below 60 degrees, if the bottom of my feet are any indication of an old Shorewood house in Wisconsin’s March. It’s been sitting there quietly for a week now. I’m thinking of leaving it for another week or two, and then either bottling it straight from primary, or putting it into a secondary pail for another couple of weeks. What do you guys recommend? The airlock has never bubbled very quickly throughout. Oh, and is there some good video out there on how to siphon correctly? Thanks in advance for all the advice.

  20. Hey Fernando,

    Let it primary for 2 weeks. I think next time you should have the temp closer to 70 degrees for your fermentation. Go to YouTube and search for a siphon homebrew video. There are a few that came up when I searched for that term.

  21. Lance

    Hey I’m brewing my first ever! batch of beer, i’m using Brewers Best kit (Milk Stout)
    i’t has been in the primary bucket for 4 days and the the air lock bubbling has slowed down to, 1x every 40-45 seconds with a heat belt around 78-80 degrees is this ok???
    i plan on leaving in primary for 3 weeks and racking to a keg and cold storing with co2 as in your article above .

  22. Lance,

    I think you’ll be ok.

  23. Kody

    I just want to add my 2 cents on this. In my experience, moving to the secondary fermenter is usually done between 2-3 days to 7-10 days depending on the beer and temperature.

    It is useless to move it AFTER it’s done fermenting (when readings are not changing at all for 2-3 days in a row). The whole point is to move it while it’s still fermenting, but when fermentation has slowed substantially.

    If you move it AFTER it’s done fermenting, then you are not using a secondary fermenter (

  24. @Kody:
    While it has indeed been called a secondary ferment I don’t think a ferment was ever intended in secondary. Going back to the brewing tome “The complete Joy Of Homebrewing” Charlie was putting the beer in secondary after at least a week of primary fermentation, and the ferment was largely done. The use of fermentation term is confusing. The use of a secondary is to give the beer time to settle suspended solids, and to do it off the primary yeast cake. That way when you rack to a bottling bucket its easier to avoid more stuff in your final product. I tend to refer to them as vessels. A primary and a secondary. But my nomenclature has nothing to do with fermentation. Most homebrewers these days are seeming to skip a secondary all together. Finally, I would add that the best brewers these days would strongly advise AGAINST moving the beer after on 2-3 days. Its unnecessary and can lead to flavor issues and under attenuation.
    Mike

  25. Rod

    If a secondary is not used, what is your recommendation regarding cold conditioning to help clear the beer if you bottle the beer instead of kegging it? I understand that when kegging you apply pressure for carbonation, but when bottling you are relying on some active yeast to ferment a small bit of sugar to provide carbonation. If I put those bottles directly in a cold environment (say a refrigerator at 45 degrees) immediately after bottling, will they carbonate? Or should I leave them at room temperature for a week or two to carbonate, then move them to a cold place?

  26. Hi Rod,

    If it is an ale, the bottles won’t carbonate if you put them in the fridge. Your plan to have them carb up at room temps for a couple of weeks and then move them to the fridge for an extended period of time would work well.

  27. Lee

    Hi All,

    I’ve had an Ale in the fermenter for 3 weeks now (my first brew) OG 1.040. It has dropped to 1.019 and held there for the last 5 days now. The recipe says 1.019 and under is OK, but to achieve the ABV of 4.0 they specified it would finish at about 1.009.

    My thoughts are that this didn’t ferment as much as it could, so either (1) yeast has died and adding sugar during bottling will just increase sweetness (yeuch) OR (2) yeast has gone dormant and will reactivate when transfered to a bottle — adding sugar will be too much in a bottle as it still has unconverted sugar left over from the wort.

    My question is this. When I bottle do I need to add sugar.
    I don’t mind if this English Bitter is low on the carbonation side as that’s typical for a pub draft in the UK.

    Thanks–

  28. Lee – I would add sugar at bottling. I wouldn’t assume your yeast have died. You may have a lot of unfermentable sugars in your brew and they are keeping your final gravity high. Use priming sugar as the recipe calls for. For your first batch, you should at least follow all the steps as instructed. You can make adjustments on the next batch if something goes wrong on this one.

  29. justin

    Hello All,

    Great discussion, just started a new fermentation on a dark stout with a predominance of hops, and dry hopped! Wish me luck!, anyways, with this discussion i wanted to give my input on this point.
    Id say to chill and add clearing agent to the primary upon complete fermentation, still utilizing the secondary for an additional chill step and dropping out more sediment. Id also agree that the secondary really only benefits the impatient very much.

  30. Scott

    Thanks guys, love this post and comments…

    I love the simplicity of not doing a secondary, along with the idea of “less messing with reduces chance of oxidation, etc…” but I read this on Wikipedia – and it aroused my overly OCD to make things clean, pure and premium – what really caught my attention was the acetylaldehydes/hangover reference:

    From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brewing#Secondary_fermentation):

    “After initial or primary fermentation, the beer may be transferred into a second container, so that it is no longer exposed to the dead yeast and other debris (also known as “trub”) that have settled to the bottom of the primary fermenter. This prevents the formation of unwanted flavours and harmful compounds such as acetylaldehydes, which are commonly blamed for hangovers. During secondary fermentation, most of the remaining yeast will settle to the bottom of the second fermenter, yielding a less hazy product.”

    What are your thoughts on this?

    FYI – I am new to brewing, I am not kegging, but going to bottles…

    Thanks!

  31. Hi Scott,

    I appreciate the research into the subject. I think a secondary phase is needed when one is brewing at a large scale. For homebrewers where the batches are smaller, the secondary isn’t necessary for most beer types. Again, this stance is based on our experience with homebrewing batches of 5 or 10 gallons.

  32. great site/thread/discussion. After reading everything I plan on leaving my first batch (IIPA) in the primary for 2 weeks. It’s been in for about a week now, bubbling slowly. While I understand the reasons for skipping a secondary in most cases…I plan on dry hopping after 2 weeks. Would it be truly bad to just drop them into the primary? I’ve read about CO2 scrubbing carrying away the hop aroma if the fermentation isn’t done, but I’m sure it’ll be done in another whole week. What do you think?

    cheers.

  33. Hi Tyler,

    I think dry hopping is another tactic that you should do in a secondary vessel. I wouldn’t dry hop during primary because of the reasons you mention in your comment.

  34. Don

    Tyler, I was thinking of doing that also. Does anyone have any reason not to do it. all of my secondaries are full (I have 25 gallons waiting to be drank but my mini kegs got rusty, I’m upgrading to stainless 5 gal.) and both my primary and bottling bucket are full. I have an IPA in them and need to start dry hopping. If someone has a good reason not to dry hop in a primary, I’d love to hear it before I screw up a good batch of beer. I’ve already dumped ten gallons due to the crappy mini kegs.

  35. Don

    I suppose I shouldn’t be mean about the Mini Kegs, They were only supposed to be good for ten uses. I got 18 with good cleaning and sanitation

  36. Victor

    Hi guys I have a red ale thats been in primary for 8 days. This is our first brew and due to inexperience we did not check specific gravity when we put it in the glass carboy (another problem?) The temp has been steady at about 72 degrees. I have broken the seal once to check the specific gravity, now im worried about it not continuing to ferment. Should i also skip secondary? It smelled wonderful!!!! but still was sweet… Thanks for the help in advance!!!

  37. Victor

    Oh and when i checked at 7 days gravity was 1.021

  38. Hey Victor,

    Next time you’ll remember to check the specific gravity before primary fermentation. That’s not a big deal in terms of having your red ale come out great. I would leave it in the primary fermentation vessel for two week and skip the secondary. Bottle it up right after the two weeks.

  39. Victor

    Thanks john! How long would you leave it in bottles at room temp before chilling? When we bottle we are going to start another batch of a bock!!! cant wait!

  40. I would leave the bottles at room temp for at least 10 days if you are in a rush. 2 weeks is my standard. I don’t have a problem with my beers becoming fully carbonated if I am patient and wait two weeks after bottling.

  41. Kdog

    Great thread, I’m learning a lot.
    I have never used a secondary (5 years of brewing, 48 batches, I share a lot, such as tailgate parties and so forth). I often say that the only thing more fun than drinking my beer is sharing it. I recently got a kit that recommended using a secondary so I googled and found this thread. After reading all this I don’t think that I will use a secondary. I trust my fellow enthusiasts. Sometimes I have very clear beer and sometimes it is rather cloudy, especially the IPAs. But in the end I don’t believe the lack of a secondary is affecting my beer’s taste, only the presentation. I am always very careful when pouring from my bottles into my glass not to disturb whatever sediment is in the bottle.
    As to the question of how long to leave a beer in the bottle; the common recommendation is 2 weeks before chilling and enjoying. I have built quite an inventory and have the luxury of letting beer sit for long periods of time. I have concluded that 2 weeks is sufficient but more time is even better. I just enjoyed a porter that was 6 months old at a tailgate last weekend. Mmmm. I’ve read that there is indeed a length of time in the bottle that is too long and can be detrimental, but I haven’t experienced that yet. I’ve only experienced “better with age”. The longest was probably 10 months, no bad effects that I could detect. But in any case I never crack a bottle until it has had beer in it for a month. I just find it to be much better than after two weeks.
    Brew on!
    Kdog

  42. mistopher

    hey guys n gals, gr8 forum, i didnt have any irish moss or whirlfloc tablets during my allgrain light pale im doing, im wanting a honey pail and put some awesome pooh beeR QUOTE on it, the pooh bear honey pail, but its turned in to the pooh cloud, im gonna rack ontop of a quart of honey that i boil for just a sec, and also on a ounce o mosaic hops, but i really hope this pooh cloud loses its cloudyness, i didnt know if there was anything safe to add to secondary to help clear it, ill try the fridge, but i want it now!

  43. Luciano

    The called “diacetyl rest” that starts right after the sugar ends (when FG doesn’t change anymore), should be called “first fermentation”, or “conditioning” phase ?
    By your definition I assume that it cannot be called “secondary fermentation”. Right ?

  44. Hi Luciano – it would be a conditioning phase.

  45. ripper

    best thread i have found so far. i have about a dozen 5 gallon brews under my belt with one blunder., i added irish moss into my secondary, it contaminated the batch i believe and turned it into a sour almost cider tasting brew, nasty. anyway i am now interested in adding fruit for a different taste. i was planning on using a lager kit, and ferment as usual for two weeks. next i plan on racking on top of about a kilo of pureed blackberries with 1/4 cup of vodka to kill any unwanted guests. next i will let that sit for another week or two then bottle…… Does anyone know about pectic enzyme? whether or not it is necessary. also any info on this topic would be awesome, thx!

  46. I used to always rack my beer to secondary fermenters until I started to read more homebrew blogs and exBeeriments. I have not found a good reason to rack to a secondary in the small volumes we use as homebrewers compared to problems that might arise if you do rack to secondary. I now drop my dry hops into the primary and rack to secondary only to prevent hop debris ending up in my keg. I also think a diacetyl rest by increasing the temp ~10F after the 1st week of fermentation has made my beers taste better, and I find my beers finish at the gravity I expect.

  47. Love it, Becky. Glad that your dry hopping schedule is working for you!

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