Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Care and Feeding of Your Kefir Grains

This is a letter I wrote to a friend when I gave her kefir grains last week. I hope it is useful to you, as well!

*** **** *** **** ***
Congratulations! You are now the steward of an amazing life form, kefir, that will provide you with cultured milk very little work on your part. You are the next a long and unbroken line of stewards that stretches back into the mists of time. Interestingly, no one really knows where kefir comes from or how it first came about. It is believed that the first kefir drinkers came from the mountains of the Caucasus where it is considered a gift from the gods. They may be right because no one has been able to grow kefir in a lab without a starter. Every kefir grain in the world is descended from those original grains.

Kefir grains, as they are called, are not really grains or seeds at all. The spongy “grains” are a colony of yeast and bacteria that convert the sugar in dairy milk into their own spongy outer covering, energy to live and reproduce and a whole host of acids, vitamins and alcoholic byproducts of their metabolism. The grains will grow and reproduce in any dairy milk and like to stay at room temperature so no heating is required. You can also use the grains to ferment other sweet liquids but the grains won’t reproduce. For more information on the microbiological make up of kefir grains, or for any other kind of information you could want about kefir, be sure to check out Dom’s Kefir In-Site.



Care and Feeding of Your Kefir Grains

The Very Basics

2 tbs of kefir grains
2 cups of milk

Place the kefir grains and milk in a glass jar with a lid and leave at room temperature until the milk thickens and sours. Strain the kefir, reserving the grains. Add the grains to fresh milk and store the finished kefir in the fridge until you use it.

See, wasn’t that easy?

Beyond the Basics

They also like to stay at a comfortable room temperature, somewhere between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That being said, they are resilient buggers and can bounce back from a lot of abuse.

The Milk

Kefir grains are at their happiest in dairy milk that is as close to the way it came out of the animal as possible. They love raw milk but do just fine in pasteurized milk. They do fine in cow or goat milk (or any other type of dairy milk you happen to have) and prefer whole, full fat milk. Low fat milk would be fine, but do not keep them in ultra pasteurized milk (which is actually shelf stable, they just sell it refrigerated because Americans won’t buy shelf stable milk), or non-fat milk for extended periods. If you must buy these types of milk treat them as non-dairy milks, discussed below.

Oh – someday you should try popping your kefir grains into whipping cream. You will never look at sour cream the same way again. Yum!

The Grains and Separating Them

It is suggested to use 1-2 tablespoons of kefir grains to 2 cups of milk and let it ferment at room temperature for 24 hours. You will learn to adjust the amount of milk based on how your kefir grains are doing at culturing milk, the ambient temperature and how many grains you have available. Remember, these guys are hardy and will culture your milk as best they can in a wide variety of circumstances.

You don’t need to rinse your kefir grains (except in special cases as talked about below), just transfer them. They should be clearish white, quite puffy and complex and soft to the touch with a slimy coating. If they are hard, or yellow or smooth they are unhappy and you should check with Dom’s Kefir In-Site to see how to help them, or if they are beyond help.

To separate the grains from the finished kefir you can either strain the kefir through a wire mesh (or plastic, or bamboo) strainer, or fish them out with a spoon or fork. For a long time I fished mine out with a small wooden fork and liked the ease of this method. Any grains I didn’t ‘catch’ just stayed in the kefir and got blended when I made smoothies. I now tend to strain and like that method for two reasons. One, it catches all the tiny baby kefir grains that start to grow in the kefir and two, it helps break up and smooth out the curd of the finished kefir.

Utensils and Jars

I culture my kefir in glass jars with a screw top lid. I tend to ferment mine with the lid on tight because I am afraid of knocking it over and spilling it, but many people suggest leaving the lid slightly ajar, or using a towel or coffee filter over the top of the jar instead of a solid lid. A tight lid allows the kefir to get more fizzy and may alter the amount of alcohol in the finished kefir. Check Dom’s Kefir In-Site for more information about various ways to effect the final fermentation.

It is fine to use stainless steel strainers or utensils to handle kefir, but please make sure they are clean and not left in the kefir for an extended amount of time. Do not use any reactive metals like brass, aluminum, cast iron, or copper. Kefir is acidic and these metals are bad news with acidic food. Plastic or bamboo are other fine choices for handling kefir.

How do I know it’s Ready?

You will know the kefir is ready to strain because the milk will have thickened and smell sour rather than sweet. At first it will be like the consistency of buttermilk, store bought kefir or drinkable yogurt but eventually the kefir will curdle and separate. When this happens you will see a thick layer of white curds floating on top and a thin yellowish liquid below. Taste your kefir at various stages to see which you like to drink – most people prefer it when it has just thickened but I don’t mind curdled kefir, myself.

If the kefir has curdled I make sure the lid is on tight and shake the jar to break up the curds. Then I separate the grains through a strainer and the finished kefir is perfectly good for baking or sweetened smoothies. Remember, kefir is a mix of bacteria and yeast so it will always have a bit more of a yeasty flavor than yogurt or even store bought kefir (which by law is not allowed to have yeast in it). Experiment with more milk or less time if your kefir is too “ripe” or sour for your tastes.



Photo by David Niergarth.

Resting Your Kefir Grains

Your kefir grains will keep fermenting milk into kefir indefinitely as long as they have good milk and proper temperatures. But sometimes you need a break either because you have too much kefir or you won’t be able to strain the grains every day. Luckily, you can refrigerate the kefir grains for up to a couple months with no detriment to the grains.

When you are ready to give your grains a break put them in a clean jar with the same amount of fresh milk that they have been fermenting in a 24 hour period. Dom recommends this amount of milk for resting your grains for up to a week. He suggests increasing the milk by about 30% for each additional week of storage, or you can simply strain the kefir out each week. I have kept 3 tbs of kefir grains in a cup of milk for a couple months at a time and the grains have bounced back just fine. The kefir you strain off the grains after their rest in the fridge is perfectly safe to drink, though it may be thinner or more sour than usual.

Do note that different strains of bacteria and yeast respond to cold storage differently so kefir grains usually require a little care when coming back to full fermenting strength. They should also get to come out of the fridge and ferment at room temperature for a week or so every couple weeks or months so they don’t get too out of balance.

When bringing kefir grains out of the fridge strain them off the old kefir and put fresh milk over them like normal. I usually use a smaller proportion of milk than usual, and change the milk as soon as it seems sour, even if it is a slightly different consistency than usual. The kefir should come back to what you expect it to be within one or two cycles with fresh milk.

Culturing Non-Dairy Beverages

Kefir grains need dairy milk to grow and reproduce but they will culture any liquid into a probiotic beverage. There are two ways to culture non-dairy beverages – switching the grains back and forth, or sacrificing some of the grains to the non dairy beverage.

If you are going to make non dairy kefir only occasionally it is best to switch the grains back and forth. I occasionally make coconut milk kefir by plunking the strained grains into canned coconut milk and let that ferment for 12 or 24 hours. When the coconut kefir is ready strain out the grains and put them back in dairy milk. I often rinse my grains before putting them back in the dairy milk thinking that the surface of the grains needs to be in good contact with the dairy milk. Dom cautions against rinsing in most situations, and I am careful when rinsing to not contaminate the grains.

If you want to continuously ferment non-dairy kefir you should hold back a portion of the grains in dairy milk and use another portion for the non-dairy milk. Use the grains in soy, almond or coconut milk the way you would in dairy milk just being sure to note when they are no longer healthy looking or fermenting properly. Keep another portion in dairy milk so that it keeps growing and you have some to replenish your non-dairy grains when they no longer ferment properly. I’ve never done this method myself, but have heard of others doing it with great success.

You can also play around with fermenting juice or sugar water as well. It often goes alcoholic, but sometimes turns out very tasty.

What To Do With All Your Kefir



Kefir is great in smoothies and baked goods and in a million other dishes. It can basically be used anywhere you would use buttermilk, but it does have a bit of a yeasty flavor that can be unwelcome in some dishes. In other dishes you’d never know the milk was cultured. Here are my favorite ways to use kefir.

*Smoothies. Combine the kefir with frozen or fresh fruit, juice, ice, and sweetner of your choice in a blender to make a delicious smoothie. Add coconut oil, nut butter or good quality egg yolks to boost the protein and fat content, or use more juice to make it lighter. You can blend the kefir with a little fruit syrup or pulp to make it more like the flavored kefir at the store. Experiment with green smoothies!

*Blender Batter Pancakes. This is a method for making pancake or waffle batter by soaking whole grains in kefir overnight and then grinding in your blender. Here is Sue Gregg's original recipe, and here is my blog post on the recipe.

*Kefir naan or flatbread. This is a neat recipe where you combine kefir and wheat flour, knead it like regular bread dough, then let it raise overnight. The natural yeast in the kefir is all the leavening you need. It is a very sour dough but tender and delicious. Cook like naan or pita on a griddle, use as a pizza crust or bake as rolls. Here's the link to the website, and here's a photo and write up of the time I did it.

*Macaroni and cheese. Just use kefir instead of milk for boxed or real cheese sauce.

*Clafouti. This is a delicious, rustic French dessert (or decadent breakfast) that is essentially an eggy pudding studded with fruit. Here's the recipe I use. I just substitute kefir for the milk and use whatever fresh or frozen fruit you have.



This post is a part of Real Food Wednesdays. Check out more real food blogs at the carnival!

45 comments:

  1. Wow, thank you so much for this informative post. I have made kefir for a few years and took a long break and am getting back to it. This was a wonderful refresher, thanks for taking the time.

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  2. Hi Alyssa,
    Loved your 'letter to a friend', especially the part "You are the next a long and unbroken line of stewards that stretches back into the mists of time."

    I love my kefir, & what it does for me:)
    Thank you.

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  3. GRRR! Wordpress glitches ate my first comment!

    I just wanted to say that this was a lovely, inspiring post. We don't use dairy milks at home, so I'm not sure exactly when I might apply the information. But we do have access to good, local, raw and lightly pasteurized milk, so maybe it's worth a try. I'm very intrigued by the culinary applications, so maybe when we get back from Mexico vacation, I'll give it a try.

    I love you! This blog is amazing. I'm so proud of you for keeping it up and continuing your fascinating culinary explorations. I wish I lived in your kitchen! Or at least a little closer to it :)

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  4. K - kefir and dairy milk is not for everyone, that's for sure. I'm sure you've heard this before, but do your research on soymilk and soy products (I know you don't eat much of that stuff, but with a little person like E I wouldn't use any of it).

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  5. I'm experiencing a litle bit of difficulty with the growth of my kefir grains ,from day one they floated but produce product fast enough everyday I have some .
    The problem is they aren't growing as i read so much about, actually almost seems to be the same. they get so jammed in the solids could i be losing some In the mixing straining process

    Rick

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    1. Add a pinch of sugar..it helped mine.

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  6. I LOVE kefir! Better than yogurt, although I make my own yogurt. I was given kefir grains from a lady in a health food store and made my own for awhile. But haven't done it in over a year. I found a great store that sells a bucket of great kefir for a very reasonable price, so I just buy that. Would my kefir grains still be useable? They've been in milk in a jar in the back of the fridge?

    I like creamed cottage cheese, but don't like the additives in the store bought containers. So I buy dry cottage cheese and add some kefir - it's now one of my favourite foods! Great source of protein and calcium and probiotics and a tangy taste.

    Thanks for your post!

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  7. I have been resting my kefir grains in milk for a couple of weeks. Is it OK to drink the milk strained off the rested grains when I reactivate them?

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    1. per above "The kefir you strain off the grains after their rest in the fridge is perfectly safe to drink, though it may be thinner or more sour than usual."

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  8. I too make my own kefir http://cuceesprouts.com/2010/10/fermenting-experimenting/

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  9. Hello, I love having recipes for using up extra kefir thank you. However, I have heard that when the kefir milk is heated for cooking/baking purposed that it loses its health benefits. Is this true?

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  10. Rick - I have found that kefir grains really don't mind being mashed around. Shake the jar up to loosen the curd before you strain and then as you strain gently but firmly mash the grains to get most of the curd off them. As for the stuff thats been in your fridge for forever - give it a try. Worse case scenario is you toss out some milk, right?

    Anonymous - yes. If it tastes good, use it. It might not be very thick or it might be extra sour, but it should be safe.

    Same anonymous? Different anonymous? Yes, heating kefir does destroy the living bacteria and yeast that are present in the live kefir. However, kefir still has lots of vitamins and easily digested protein - as well as lots of excellent flavor - that are still present in the cooked food.

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  11. I left my kefir grains in the milk sitting out for a few weeks :( What to do now? are the keifr grains still good? My kids just started drinking milk. (after my oldest has had an allergic reaction for the past few years) Thanks to the GAPS diet my kids are eating a lot more foods then they have been. But what to do with these grains?

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  12. I got my kefir grains online. When they came it was really yeasty and smelled bad. I have been making kefir for over a week now and they are growing but the yeast smell is still REALLY strong and I can taste it a lot. Is this normal or do they just need time. If it is normal I don't think I can't do it. I made a smoothie with the kefir milk all I could taste was yeast. YUKE! Should I get rid of these and try another source to get kefir grains? Very sad because I like the benefits of kefir.

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  13. Don't get so excited , Air with caution Kifer has a small amount of alcohol in it , 1% it can have as much as 3% . Kifer is an yeast product and dose what yeast dose . Never add suger befofe fermenting . If you plan on serving kefir to children.

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  14. I received Kefir by mail order. It took them 5 days in the mail at 80-95 degree. I've made possibly 6 or more batches of kefir now. The kefir grains are growing, but the thickened kefir hasn't yet developed a bubbly, champagne like texture. What's the trick to making it taste bubbly?

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    1. culture in a tightly sealed container and/or do a second ferment after you strain off the grains. 2nd ferment also mellows out the flavor so it's not quite so tart.

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  15. Does it destroy the live cultures in the kefir when you blend them in a blender?

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  16. That is an excellent question... I don't know. I kinda don't think so, but I have no science to back that up. What I do have, is experience with blending kefir and then having it continue to ferment and get bubbly in the fridge. Some folks claim that blenders can denature proteins like in eggs so it might be worth checking into what damage a blender does. Using a blender that gets really hot could certainly destroy the bacteria, though.

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  17. thanks for the info! i make my own, but I kind of wing it? I dont know anyone that does local, so it is hard to compare. most pages I have seen think their way is the only way... its nice to hear you say to drink it at the taste you like it. I thought I was weird (again!)

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  18. I recently inherited some grains, and have been experimenting. I seem to have this continual problem of curdling. The milk never seems to "thicken", it just goes straight to curdled. I have tried to trouble-shoot in as many ways as I've read how, without success. Any clue as to what I am doing wrong? :(

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  19. A couple of things pop into my mind ...
    * Ratio of grains to milk. Too many grains, it will kefir too quickly and curdle instead of becoming nice and creamy.
    * Room temperature. I swear, this is a key factor and practically out of your control. In the winter, I set my jar on the counter next to the fridge. In the summer, I place the jar into a crock with cold water (and throw in an ice pack when it's really hot). The warmer the room temp, the more quickly the kefir will curdle the milk and won't turn nice and creamy.

    But this is the fun of kefiring. It's a daily science experiment! Since the grains are constantly growing, it's a constant trial and error for the ratios because the room temperature can fluctuate!

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  20. Thanks. I was trying to see how to rest my milk kefir grains. I was resting them in spring water, but now I know I can rest them in regular milk. Won't the milk go bad if left in there a couple weeks?

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    1. no it won't. the grains continue to do what they do, just slower.

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  21. I have been using milk kefir for the past few months and recently had an endoscopy. Doctor says I have Hpylori, which is a common bacteria found in the stomach. I'm wondering if milk kefir has anything to do with the diagnosis.

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    1. It is known that kefir cures the Hpylori in two months. Just google kefir and Hpylori.
      good luck and hope it will be cured soon

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  22. Wouldn't cooking kill the bacteria and loose lots of the health benefits?

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  23. Hey Noogieboogie.. .I am perfectly content to cook with kefir. Yes, cooking does kill the bacteria in the fermented milk but there are still lots of B vitamins, and the lactose has been fermented. Cooking with fermented dairy is a traditional method, and one I am perfectly happy to use. I don't like drinking kefir enough to keep up with the amount I made and so using it in cooked applications is a great way for me to have it around for raw use, and still use it up. Thanks for the comment!

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  24. Hi! There!Thank you so much for your web page! I love Kefir Grains, I have been drinking kefir for a long time ago and I have been sharing a lot of these incredible friendly creatures! however I noticed lately that they are shrinking, I dont know if it is because we live in a such a hot place or if it is the milk, or what in the world... I am really worried! I want to know what I can do! I read that I can add sugar or egg shell, could you please give me your advice??? Thank you very much! Brenda

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  25. Thank you for the wonderful info...I began my kefir journey about 6 weeks ago using an online supplier of grains. My grains haven't seemed to grow larger, but there is definately more of them. From almost the beginning, my kefir begins separating at about 12-13 hours with 2 Tbls of grains, 2 cups of milk ad temp. of about 71 degrees. When I strain, the curds are very heavy around the grains ( even after some stirring and / or shaking. What I have been doing is "re-straining" the grains with the kefir 5 or 6 times to try to clean some of the curds from the grains. Would this possibly impede the grains from growing larger and should I just take the whole glob and put in the new jar with the new milk? The main reason I had been doing this was to allow more of the kefir tho drain from the grains and thicken my finished batch. Once again, thanks for the awesome blog.

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  26. Very informative post, thanks for writing it up :)

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  27. Thank you so much for sharing because i am traveling and I want to keep my grains. For sure I will try all the recipes listed and let you know. Thanks again

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  28. I made kefir for 4 years from some I got from a friend. A month or so ago, I started having trouble with it: not multiplying but shrinking, off tastes, finally tasting so bad I was afraid to drink it. So I tossed the grains.

    I just received some grains from a kind donor. They look very different from the ones I had before. The first were in a slimy white mass, mostly, and I just used chopsticks to fish them out and move them to a fresh container. But these are pinkish and each grain is large and distinct. The person who gave them to me said she rinses them carefully after every batch, and, in fact, what she gave me was very "clean" looking. So far (4 days, 3 batches) I do not have a creamy kefir, but a somewhat effervescent thinnish product that tastes kind of yeasty and zingy. Some variables are that I'm using non-fat milk and it's pretty cool these days in my kitchen. Do you think everything is going OK and that I'll be getting more kefir-like kefir soon? One thing I don't like as much is that there is some separation into curds and whey, and the curds are hard to separate from the kefir. Because the grains stay largely in individual pieces, I can't just fish out the "blob" the way I used to.

    Anyone's comments are welcome.

    Fred, in northern California

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  29. Ok, finally got my tiny kefir grains from a friend who visited turkey, I made seven batches so far in a week and I love how it tastes, when will start noticing increase kin grain size?

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  30. Kefir makes a great guacamole! No need for lemon/lime juice. All other ingredients, beside avocados, go very well, like onion, garlic, cilantro, tomatoes or tomatillos, jalapenos or chile sauce and a pinch of salt. It makes a soft, creamy, delicious and healthy guacamole.

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  31. Great blog post. I've been doing kefir research online for a week now, and your article is the best and has answered nearly all my questions. I just need to experiment more to get it right.

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  32. Wow - what a generous thing to do for your friend. Thank you so much for sharing all this information :)

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  33. Is is absolutely imperative to keep the milk kefir at room temperature? Could I put it in the fridge to ferment? I do drink it and love what it has done for me, but was speaking to someone that is quite knowledgeable and he told me I was taking a chance of getting very sick from this, as it actually is decomposing at room temperature. Anyone please advice....Thank you. Very nervous now!

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    1. It is not "decomposing", culturing is a process, like cheese making, wine makine, vinegar making, all fermented products, if culturd correctly are afe to consume. Kefir I have found is the simplest and easiest cultured product to keep and make safely at home. The probiotics in the grains prevent the growth of other unwanted bacteria. Hope that helps!

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  34. I have recently been diagnosed with cancer & someone recommended Kefir as a product I should be using. Does anyone have any knowledge of this?????

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    1. I use it and have cancer. Seems to give me energy. Ask your Dr.

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    2. It's always good to be eating real foods because real foods boost your immune system and help your body to fight the cancerous cells. Kefir, yogurt, raw milk and other similar nutrient-rich foods would help you tremendously in your recovery.

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  35. Hi, I need help here please. I left my kefir grains in coconut milk and almond milk for three days and I want to make sure they are still alive. Can I use pateurized buttermilk to reactivate them? I could not find pasteurized milk at the store, all the milk they have is ultra-pasteurized. Thanks.

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  36. Hi - very informative article, which I will no doubt return to as and when needed. I'm going to be trying to make some non-dairy kefir, so I'm expecting some hiccups! Think page will help out though. Thanks.

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