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The Brewer’s Path, Renoir, and the Craft Beer Narrative

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One of the things that I got a real sense of while co-writing the Ontario Craft Beer Guide and something that has really stuck out as we begin our research on a possible other one, is the narrative. The story each brewery has behind them.

The fascinating thing is that narratives in this more beer-focused sense are similar to a Renoir painting. If you step back enough you can see a beer narrative on the provincial, national, and even international scale. An LCBO online store that delivers via Canada Post, Canadians cleaning up in American brewing awards, the interesting goings of the biggest beer takeover, or even the growing demand for craft beer in China and South Korea. But you can also get right up close and see smaller but no less important narratives going on. A homebrewer’s path to going professional or a brewery’s journey in navigating the consumer landscape or growing as a company. It’s those stories that writers like me live for. It can be incredibly rewarding and educational just to track how far a brewery has come over the years and what experiences get carried by brewers who shift from job to job.

Here’s an example.

robertsimpson_logoFlying Monkeys Brewery in Barrie. Founded eleven years ago and originally named after the city’s first mayor, Robert Simpson Brewery had a fairly standard lineup of beers in its portfolio, which included Robert Simpson Pale Ale, Sugarbush Lager, Confederation Amber Ale and Antigravity Light Ale. Four years later the brewery underwent a rebranding because, as founder and head brewer Peter Chiodo said, “Being named for a dead white guy just isn’t very exciting”. The newly branded Flying Monkeys Brewery launched with a new beer along with their name, the Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale, and soon after put a focus on esoteric and strong-flavoured beers with some of the craziest-looking art around. So crazy, in fact, that in 2011 the brewery saw themselves the topic of a province-wide discussion on the stronghold the LCBO has on many breweries when an application to stock the brewery’s latest beer, Smashbomb Atomic IPA, was declined because the depiction of an explosion on the label went against the government-run institution’s social responsibility policy.

smashbooombOver the years Flying Monkeys had been favouring brewing beers both extreme in flavour and high in alcohol content. Starting in 2011 with Alpha Fornication, “the world’s hoppiest beer” at 2,500 International Bittering Units, the brewery went on to make beers like Matador IIPA, Chocolate Manifesto, and the City & Colour Imperial Maple Wheat. Interesting concepts that were proudly over the top and, perplexingly, sold in large 750ml bottles despite the fact that for the most part the flavours were so extreme you couldn’t finish a pint of some of them. To add to their publicity for esoteric beers, they also regularly collaborated with musicians, notably Dallas Green and the Barenaked Ladies.

mythologyLately though, Flying Monkeys has been paying close attention to where people’s tastes are going and have started putting more of a focus on a few of their “simple done well” beers. Mythology, for instance. is a Czech Pilsner with a wonderful blend of biscuity malts and the floral, citrus character of Saaz hops. It’s incredibly well-made and has just recently won gold in the Canadian Brewing Awards. The brewery has also, finally, switched to cans, realizing that folks are more prone to buying one or two tallboys than they are for a six pack or giant bottle.

From basic entry-level beers, to outrageous and extreme flavour bombs, to award-winning pilsners in cans. That’s a hell of a brewery narrative, and it’s not even close to being finished.

One more.

DSC_0650Eric Portelance and Callum Hay are self-taught homebrewers with no formal training. For over four years they had been reading every book they could find, scouring every wiki and forum they could, to learn how to brew and brew well. They were also active members in Toronto’s large homebrewing community. When they eventually decided to start a brewery, one of the elements they had always insisted on being part of their identity was to have every single recipe for their beer available on their web site so other brewers can replicate or even expand on it. While several breweries have done this, the standard designation of it was putting out a “clone recipe”. Portelance, a former digital product designer, and Hay, a former software engineer, coined the term “Open-source beer” as a kind of tribute to their past lives. Terms aside, it was important for them to give back to the homebrewing community that helped them so much by putting their recipes out there for free.

DSC_0672After going through the usual tumbles of opening a brewery in Toronto (licensing, installation of equipment, testing the recipes etc.) Halo Brewery officially opened in the spring of this year. Located across the street from Ubisoft Toronto (people in motion capture bodysuits can frequently be seen around the area), the brewery experienced what is almost now common in the Toronto beer scene…a tremendous wave of support and near-constant packed house, with a very quick sell-out of many of the beers available that no one would ever have anticipated. Their beers include such delightfully nerdy names as Ion Cannon Strawberry & Kiwi Gose, Magic Missile Dry-Hopped Pale Ale, and Tokyo Rose Saison with Rosehips.

Despite their initial success Portelance and Hay have brought their experience of homebrewing with them, which means they are always refining their recipes and their process to get it to their own constantly raising standard. It also means that they’re learning a lot of the little differences between a homebrewing setup and a full-on brewery, which is something that can only be learned by starting your own brewery. Luckily for the duo, they anticipated all of this so they’re rolling with the good and the bad.

Callum Hay and Eric Portelance’s individual stories are long, but Halo Brewery’s has just started. That’s exciting.

Now it should be said that not all of the narratives in the beer scene are happy ones. While we’re seeing more and more breweries open up lately there are still a bunch that are closing down, and I don’t feel the latter gets as much attention as it should. A lot of breweries, most contract (folks who hire a brewery to brew their beer for them), some not, get into brewing thinking that it’s a giant cash cow and that the money will just come rolling in. Others end up just not progressing as much as they’d like to and the dream becomes unfeasible. Just today brewer Victor North announced that his brewery, Garden Brewers, was winding down operations. In his own words, he says: “We began to really focus on growing into a bricks-and-mortar company, but we also began to really lose money. I genuinely thought that we would beat the clock -and the odds- but we now find ourselves in a position where we are unable to continue”. It’s moments like that which remind you that, regardless of the reason, it is still possible to fail in this business. However, not wanting to be a downer, I should point out that while that’s the end of Garden Brewers’ narrative for the time being it is by no means the end of Victor North’s. The dude is a bright talent and he’ll continue to do awesome things within the industry. He’s by no means down for the count and I couldn’t be happier about that.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of narratives that are currently going on right now as you’re reading this. From a beer industry viewpoint they’re great to hear and provide insight into the ethos of a particular brewer or brewery. For a customer, it does the same, only I kind of feel those stories don’t get told as often as they should, what with all the commercials about the fresh ingredients and so on. But even then, all it takes to learn the story of a brewer is to simply walk up to them at an event and ask.

Chances are, they’d like to tell it to you.

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Dark Ontario Beers for Dark Ontario Winters

Well, if the shortened days, snow, and respectable low temperatures are anything to go by (and I think they are), it would seem that winter is finally here. This means a lot of things. Coffeeshops are switching to peppermint everything, stores are playing Christmas songs to cause a kind of insanity among the public, and, of course, the darker beers are rolling in. Seasonal or not I like my dark beers during the winter. I find that, like a hot chocolate or mug of coffee, these beers add to the experience of warming up by a roasting fire indoors and laughing at whatever poor soul is walking in the snowstorm (don’t judge, I know you do it too).

The beers here are just a sample of some of the quality Ontario brews that are coming out right now that go well with fires, sweaters and perhaps a couple of jingling bells. A few of these can also be aged in the cellar for a couple of years, where they will be perfect for sharing with friends, giving as gifts, or used as an emergency escape from family gatherings.

Nutcracker Porter (Black Oak Brewing, 5.8% ABV): The notes of cinnamon and nutmeg in this already make it a winner for what to drink when you just get in from the cold. Pretty intense coffee notes with a nice cocoa finish. Glad that it’s in the LCBO, but it’s definitely a great experience to have on tap. If you’re in the area, Black Oak is hosting a Porter and Pie party at the brewery on December 14th, so you can get a good feel on what food this beer would pair well with.

Winterbeard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout 2012 (Muskoka Brewery, 8% ABV), A beer I always look forward to in winter and this year the folks at Muskoka seem to have done a favour for people who don’t have the space for cellars and aged a batch of last year’s Winter Beard for you with an LCBO release. And it turns out that a year does a lot to the beer, with the cranberry notes rising up slightly and the chocolate notes calming down a bit. As a bonus, if you’re ever near the Brewery off the highway near Bracebridge, see if they have any bottles of Winter Jack left. An unforgettable beer that has their 2011 Winterbeard aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels for a year. Both are excellent winter warmers.

Barrel Aged Double Tempest Imperial Stout (Amsterdam Brewing, 14% ABV): This will be making an official launch at the Amsterdam BrewHouse on Saturday at 1pm. A gorgeous beer, but something of a beast at 14%. Really though, that just means you should share this amped up version of Amsterdam’s Tempest or save it for a day when Cabin Fever starts to take hold.  Beautiful, rich coffee and cocoa notes with a hint of dried fruit and toffee. The Five Roses Bourbon Barrels that it aged in adds a gorgeous burn to it. A slightly dry finish that rounds things off nicely. Slight aftertaste of chocolate lingers around the taste buds for a while.

Vanilla Porter (Mill Street Brewery, 5% ABV): You know, I have really fond memories of this beer. It must have been two years ago in mid-December and I was walking from my work to the Dominion on Queen for a Ukulele jam (I swear, this was before they became a Thing) during a particularly horrible storm. When I finally got in, I was drenched from coat to bone and shivering. Not really knowing what to order, the Mill Street Vanilla Porter hit my fancy and I had one. The sweet chocolaty taste and the warming vanilla extract notes and the creamy head that comes with nitrogen-charged beer can bring made this absolutely perfect. I went back for seconds. And then thirds. Much to my absolute joy, Mill Street finally gave in to the demand and gave it a can release available at LCBOs now.

Triple Chocolate Manifesto Triple Chocolate Milk Stout (Flying Monkeys, 10% ABV):  I once described their previous effort, the BNL Double Chocolate Imperial Stout as a chocolate cake in alcoholic liquid form. My thoughts on the Triple Chocolate Manifesto are similar to that, only with, yes I’m serious, more chocolate. Made with Cacao nibs and Cacao powder, this beer is almost like drinking a bunch of Brown Cow chocolate syrup. Definitely a sipper to have with family and should most definitely be put on vanilla ice cream.

 

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City & Colour & Beer: Flying Monkeys City and Colour Imperial Maple Wheat

 

‘I love beer. When someone approaches you and asks “would you like to collaborate on your very own signature beer flavor?” You say “yes”‘

So says Dallas Green aka City and Colour, the former Alexisonfire frontman and St. Catherine’s, Ontario musician whose fourth and most recent offering, The Hurry and the Harm, hit shelves early last month and promptly went to #1 on the Canadian charts.

With such obvious talent it comes as no surprise that Barrie-based Flying Monkeys Brewery reached out to Dallas to create a collaboration beer.

The beer is part 2 of the brewery’s Treble Cleff Series, which makes collaboration brews with Canadian musical talent. The first in the series, the BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout made with the Barenaked Ladies, was met with much success and frankly, tasted amazing.

This beer, however, is much different (though no less big). City and Colour Imperial Maple Wheat beer. At 11.5% ABV, it’s made with Ontario Maple Syrup and Fair-Trade Organic Bourbon Vanilla Pods. The decision to go with something distinctly Canadian was an easy one and what better ingredient than Maple Syrup? From there, Peter Chiodo and Head Brewer Paul Buttery set to work developing the beer, with Dallas himself appearing for a brew day “The highlight of my time there was seeing how enthusiastic Peter and the rest of the flying monkeys gang were about beer.” Dallas recalls. “It reminded me of how I feel about music”. The bottle/box art as well, put together by Andrea Chiodo and and Bruce Chalmers, was directly inspired by the many tattoos of Dallas Green and captured the simple yet complex style that City & Colour invokes.

The beer made a public showcase at last week’s Session Toronto and will be seeing an LCBO launch tomorrow (July 4th) at the Summerhill location from 4pm to 7pm, with Dallas himself attending to sign bottles. It will also see a Western Canada release thanks to distribution by the 49th Parallel Group.

Now on to the review. I got to try this beer on Canada Day, which was pretty fitting with the Maple Syrup notes.

Before I go in to it, I have to say this: SHARE THIS BEER. I’m sure if you were determined enough you could have the bottle to yourself, but this really is a beer worth sharing with friends, family and loved ones. Music makes a good pairing as well. Dallas suggests playing the whole of The Hurry and The Harm and slowly sipping it.

COLOUR: Ruby Red.

AROMA: MAPLE MAPLE MAPLE. This has a very dominating maple scent that, similar to the chocolate notes in the BNL beer, just take over the space. The Vanilla is in there though.

TASTE: Of course the very real Maple Syrup notes hit first, and they hit really hard. Vanilla closely follows with a slight alcohol burn in the middle (the bourbon?). The whole thing wraps up nicely at the end with with a touch of sweetness and the elegant final twist of Maple. When had cold, it reminds me of moments in Pioneer Village tasting maple sap that had been chilling in the ice. When the beer warms in the glass, it gets notciebly stickier in mouthfeel and the alcohol burn becomes a bit more present.

VERDICT: You know, this past spring I had pretty much written off Maple Beers as something that just wouldn’t appeal to me. This…seems different to me somehow. I’m hesitant to say this is an excellent dessert beer, and it is, but it seems more suited to a good Canadian breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and coffee. Especially pancakes. Have to say, I developed a craving for it while drinking the beer.

I can’t drink much of this like I could with the BNL beer (One snifter glass full suited me just fine), but it’s a beer that sticks in your mind after a while and is an absolute joy to drink. I wrote in my notes that it’s “Canadian as %*$#” and you know? It may be the patriotism talking, but I think that’s a pretty good descriptor for it, as it invokes a lot of memories for me (see above in the taste section for one of them). I think I’m going to save a bottle for winter though, to see how well it pairs with the season that Canadians are known for.

Here’s the title track for City and Colour’s Hurry and the Harm.

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Session Toronto 2013

 

Well now. Session.

This past Saturday was the Session Craft Beer Festival, which is more or less an after party to the Ontario Craft Beer Week festivities. Last year featured some of the best and brightest breweries from all over Ontario showcasing special one-offs and this year was no different. The festival included a wonderful selection including beers for consideration in the in-fest competition Collaboration Nation, where breweries teamed up with Ontario celebrities like the badass TV personality Ed the Sock, Well-known horse masturbator Tom Green, Canadian Singer-Songwriter City & Colour and Toronto Star Beer Columnist Josh Rubin for a chance of their beer being picked up by a handful of LCBO stores.

This year’s event was packed. More than a thousand arrived for the event at Wychwood Barns and the event was shoulder to shoulder. Amazing for the organizers and for anyone looking for a sign that craft beer is only going to get bigger.

My one big suggestion to the organizers for next year (and one that they are very well aware of by now, I’d wager) would be to find a bigger place so folks can spread out a bit better and even separate if there are individual things going on. Beer Writer and Prud’homme Beer Sommelier Crystal Luxmore, who I deeply admire and look up to for her insightful view on the drink we love, led a tasting with hot dogs and a selection of beers. Although the talk was wonderful, I feel it would have been better in an area with better acoustics. Equally so with Black Oak Brewery’s Sonja North and Erica Campbell’s talk on IPAs. In the end I got the sense that, with two stages for live music/talks, food trucks galore, a volleyball court and incredible beer, the organizers planned big but, to be on the safe side, chose a space that was too small.

Don’t get me wrong though, of all the problems that a festival can get, “too crowded” is a really good one to have. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of beer lovers for this event and seeing the overwhelming love for quality beer was incredible. In the crowds I managed to strike up conversations with some fantastic people (including an adorable couple that met during Ontario Craft Beer Week) and got a good insight in to the general public’s way of looking at beer. Session is a festival that keeps showing the rise of the Beer Geek in popular culture and I love the hell out of it.

Although the winner of the Collaboration Nation competition was The Tom Green Beer, a milk stout by Beau’s All Natural Brewing and Tom Green, I had many highlights, including  “Allison Brier”, a Raspberry Saision by Sawdust City Brewing and Edge 102’s Fearless Fred, “Lion Grass”, an earthy beer made with lemongrass and Dandelion leaves by Highlander Brew Co. and Durham Tourism Manager Kerri King and “Red on Red”, a stunning Imperial Red Ale by Flying Monkeys and Central City Brewing.

It was a fun, inspiring, and above all an optimistic day.

…there was also a scary clown.

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Welcome 680 News Listeners!

Hey there! For those who were directed here by the first of several spots on Toronto 680 News, WELCOME!

For those who didn’t know, well, I’m on there! Here is the audio to the segment!

If you are interested at all in the Flying Monkeys BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout, here is my review on it as well as the LCBO’s listing, which includes the stores that still carry it (and my there are lots!).

After that, please feel free to explore around the site. You can follow me on twitter at @TheThirstyWench and even like me on my Facebook Page.

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And That’s 2012 Done

First, just want to say that my time at Rogers Daytime Toronto yesterday was, as always, amazing. To my surprise I was given 10.5 minutes to talk about as much of the seasonal beer stuff that was going on and, despite feeling as I always do, that I stumbled through it and came out looking foolish, I was told that it was really a good show and my segment had people surrounding nearby televisions listening. And I never, EVER get tired of crew members coming up to me afterward and expressing their amazement that beer can be different than the flavourless coloured liquid that most people know.

So here’s the beer things that I was talking about.

BEST OF BEAU’S MIX PACK: Set of four amazing beers that were voted as the best of the many, MANY one-offs that Beau’s Brewery were making throughout the year. The Matt’s Sleepy Time Belgian Imperial Stout in particular was amazing. About $24 at the LCBO and going rather fast.

THREE KINGS GIFT SET: A box of three of King Brewery’s finest complete with glass. This is the ultimate gift for the lager lover and all three beers, the Vienna Lager, Pilsner and Dark Lager, make amazing gateway beers for the Molson or Coors drinker in your life. A mere $9.99 at the LCBO.

MILL STREET BARLEY WINE: I love these Barley Wines from Mill Street because they can be aged for years and years and only get better. This particular batch has hints of vanilla and Kentucky Bourbon. Can be enjoyed now or aged for years and years. Seriously, I know people who are testing just how long they can age this beer. A fun gift. $12.95 at the LCBO.

BNL IMPERIAL CHOCOLATE STOUT: I think it’s safe to say that you know what I think of this by now. Amazing dessert beer that goes well with ice cream, trifle, raspberries…a very delicious beer. About $13

And those are the beer things I was talking about.

Now on to this year.

2012 has definitely been an interesting year for this site. It went from something only my mom and a few friends read to something that receives several thousand hits per month. I’ve gone from being someone who knew next to nothing about beer to someone who knows a little bit more and is still learning. I’ve gone to many amazing events, made some amazing friends within the industry and have even gone on television to talk about this ancient and wonderful drink that I enjoy. This has been a year where many doors opened up for me and no one is more grateful or baffled about it than I am.

So I’d like to take this chance to thank you folks for continuing to read The Thirsty Wench. Your support has been overwhelming and I don’t think I can adequately thank you all enough. And if you’ve ever dropped a few bucks in to the tip jar, thank you. Every little bit helps keep this running.

It’s also been an awesome year for beer here in Ontario. It seems just like yesterday that to make an IPA was taking a risky chance and now new breweries are starting off their product line with them. Releases of Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts are now a decision that is never met with any hesitation. The wild and crazy of the past is the safe and common of the present and I love that because it means that we’ll be seeing some more amazing experiments in the near future that will test our taste buds and preconceptions. It’s been an exciting year and it only promises to get more exciting, folks.

Some fun things are in the works for The Thirsty Wench in 2013. There are talks about leading a tasting, more Television appearances, a few radio talks, more guest posts and even a book that’s in the works. You’ll hear about it all here.

Alright, I’m going to finish this post off before it turns in to a rant or I reveal too much. I’m writing this on the train now, but when I get home I’m going to pour a glass of something nice, do any small edits that need doing and post it.

As The Most Interesting Man in the World says: Stay thirsty, my friends.

Horrible beer he promotes, but good words.

All the best,

The Thirsty Wench (Robin LeBlanc), Toronto, 2012

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A Musical Beer Collaboration: Flying Monkeys BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout

Flying-Monkeys-BNL-Strong-Beer

Around September Canadian beer lovers and music fans alike were excited to learn of a collaboration beer being made with Ontario brewery Flying Monkeys and the iconic Canadian band the Barenaked Ladies. For those not familiar with the group, they’re basically the ultimate “local boys do good” story here where I live, the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Everyone here has sung along to “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “One Week” at least ten times in their life, have hung out in their preferred hangout of the Scarborough Town Centre and well…let’s just say that the Barenaked Ladies are kind of a big deal here. Even ignoring their hits, my international readers will probably best know them with the song “Get in Line” from King of the Hill or even more popularly, the theme song for The Big Bang Theory. So if you’ve heard their music with it’s naturally quirky nature, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that they would team up with a brewery called Flying Monkeys.

What makes this fun is that BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout, due to hit stores across the country to coincide with the “Symphony Barenaked” Canada tour starting November 30th, isn’t just a matter of the boys sticking their names on the beer and leaving it be. They kept well connected with the folks at Flying Monkeys, working out what they wanted the beer to represent, supplied box and label art by band member Kevin Hearn and even showed up for the first day of brewing. “The guys got a crash course in the brewhouse. Honestly, we’ve never collaborated with a better bunch of guys!” says Flying Monkeys founder and brewer Peter Chiodo.

The Ladies themselves had an amazing time. “It was incredible there,” says drummer Tyler Stewart. “The folks at Flying Monkeys, they love what they make and they’re so in to it and have a great time. And we love them because they are what they are, making high quality stuff that people love and isn’t crappy. That really matches the BNL philosophy.”

Let’s talk about the beer a bit. BNL Strong Beer is an Imperial Chocolate Stout made with organic Ecuadorian Cocoa Nibs. “And it’s at 10% (ABV), so this isn’t a beer you can quaff, but instead sip and really appreciate.” says Stewart.

Now. On to the review. To enhance the experience I’ve asked Tyler what Barenaked Ladies songs he’d pair this beer with and he suggests two. The first being “Ordinary” from their 2010 album All In Good Time “I think ordinary matches because the song has this really upbeat tone, but very intense lyrics, so the song isn’t what it seems to be. Just like this beer, while on the surface is an ordinary drink, it is anything but ordinary.” He also suggests the hit “Pinch Me” from 2000’s Maroon album. “It’s time to wake up and try some beer!” he says with a laugh. (I’ve put the songs up below this post, so feel free to listen and read)

COLOUR: A beautiful black with a decent mocha head that sticks around for the party.

AROMA: Chocolate fudge cake all the way and it hits you when you first open the bottle. You can smell the chocolate two feet away. Slightly fruity. I would have no problem letting this sit so the smell could take over my room.

TASTE: As expected, there’s a HUGE bitter and delicious cocoa presence at the front with a sweetness that makes this taste almost like chocolate milk but more like a good and dense chocolate cake. After that comes a hint of molasses with a slight fruity taste hitting the back with the gentle burn of the alcohol. Or maybe this warmth is from the cocoa. Hm. Mouthfeel is very creamy with little carbonation. Tyler was right in saying this is not a drink to be quaffed. I couldn’t quaff this if I tried (and I did try for, uh, the sake of experimentation).  The heaviness of this beer makes me almost feel like I’m sipping a cocoa liquer. I kind of wish I had some ice cream or raspberries to compliment this.

VERDICT: Love it. It’s heavy, full of delicious cocoa and creates a comfortable warmth that matches the season, and the music of the Barenaked Ladies, perfectly. This is obviously a dessert beer for me, but can be enjoyed any time. I’ll be looking forward to getting more of this, one bottle for aging and another for an especially cold winter night.

And now I’m going to have “One Week” in my head for…well, maybe about a week.

photos courtesy of Flying Monkeys Brewery, except the one of the box which is mine.

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