Coffee Subscriptions

In my review of the Blue Coffee Box I observed:

In addition to the quality of the coffee, important considerations include the ability to control the frequency of delivery since even a well-sealed bag will only keep coffee properly fresh for a few weeks. Another factor is how much choice is there over the style of coffee delivered? Does the service allow for some flexibility and choice around that?

To review these aspects of the service I signed up for a subscription. The first decision as whether I would like Light, Medium, or Dark roast, or there was an option to “surprise me” with each bag. Although I had sampled three bags of their coffee already, these had not been categorised in this way so I was unsure which I would prefer and plumped for the Medium option.

The next decision was frequency of delivery: fortnightly, monthly or every two months. Finally, I could choose to pay monthly, or pre-pay for 3, 6 or 12 months. Prepaying for 3 months saves 50p per bag, for 6 months it is £1 per bag. If you go for fortnightly deliveries then prepayment options are 8 and 16 weeks for a 50p and £1 discount accordingly. I placed my order on a Saturday, it was dispatched on the Tuesday and arrived two days later on Thursday. The coffee was again excellent.

The medium roast was exactly as you would expect a medium roast, rich but well-balanced and not over-powering but I remained undecided: am I a light roast or a medium roast subscriber? I decided that the only way to check was to change to a light roast for my next bag. I duly emailed the team at Blue Coffee Box, explained that I was still on the fence, and they were very happy to switch my subscription for my next bag. Their IT systems were not quite as obliging as it inadvertently generated a new order for me and charged my card again, but another email to them saw that swiftly corrected.

Once your subscription is live you can view it on their website and make some amendments, such as switching the pre-pay period, skip your next renewal (the date of which is clearly shown), cancel and add a new subscription. Cancellation seems to be the only way to change the frequency, having first cancelled the existing subscription, hence I had to email them to change from medium to light roast.

Blue Coffee Box offer a great subscription product which is simple and easy to use. The variety of coffee is supplemented by the different roasters used, so every delivery is going to feel like a mini-surprise present to yourself. The downside is that the coffee is only posted to you on a fixed schedule (2, 4 or 8 weeks) so if your coffee consumption does not fit one of those patterns then you will find yourself accumulating a surplus or running short and needing to “top up” from other sources.

The need for flexibility and low-stress stock management is something I think Pact Coffee have solved. I have been using them since 2013 and while their product started off as a weekly or monthly subscription service, their website has evolved to include precise scheduling and handy features like “choose my subscription frequency in days” (mine is 21), and buttons for “skip this delivery” and “ship today” (or “tomorrow” if it is after 1pm). Thus my routine is: realise while making coffee that I have only a few days supply remaining, pull up website on phone while waiting for it to brew, request coffee be posted that afternoon and it generally arrives within two days. Pact also requires you to choose your coffee from a rotating menu of around 6 or 7 they have in stock on any particular day—great if you like a particular coffee and want more of the same—but there is enough turnover that you can probably have something different every time if you prefer too.

Conclusion

A coffee subscription allows you to enjoy, with minimal effort, high quality freshly roasted coffees that you will never find for sale in your local supermarket. As with most subscription products, there are discounts available to tempt new customers so I recommend you try them both using the offers below and decide which style of subscription works best for you. Cheers!

  • Blue Coffee Box are offering Too Busy To… readers £5 off your first order using code TBTO5.

  • Pact Coffee: Use code NATHAN-US3CIQ on your first order and we both get £5 off our next respective deliveries.

Blog news: self-hosting photographs

A few months ago I noticed that the home page of this site was taking multiple seconds to load. Common wisdom is that a “good” loading time is under 200ms, and even though a photo blog such as this might be a bit slower than a text-heavy site, multiple seconds is just too long to wait.

The best lead I had as to why this was taking so long was the comment inserted by the WP Super Cache plugin at the bottom of every page recording how long it took to generate in seconds. This was frequently more than 3 seconds which suggested that the problem was either my web server being too slow or a problem with my WordPress setup. Discounting the first as unlikely, I did some reading up on WordPress performance-tuning. The most practical advice was to minimise the number of plugins you use, and turn off each plugin in turn and check the effect on load-time before and after. I use few plugins but had been fond of Flickr Justified Gallery for displaying my Flickr-hosted photographs, and of course this was the culprit. The problem is not the plugin itself but Flickr’s own API—generating each gallery requires a query to Flickr to retrieve the list of photos in the album.

My preferred solution was to host my own images. This blog is 14 years old now and as I learned last year, third party services can disappear or change unexpectedly. Sadly the built-in gallery layout with WordPress 4.x remains an old-fashioned looking grid of square thumbnails that can fail to represent the underlying photograph properly (example). The JetPack add-on comes with a more attractive gallery layout but automatically uploads and serves all your images from their servers, which has its own downsides.

I looked at a number of third-party gallery plugins but anything outside the WordPress core also has the same “third-party risk” as Flickr: the code could stop working in the future, breaking all my old posts. None could also match the slick efficiency of Flickr’s upload workflow for optimising, arranging and captioning images. Fortunately while I was investigating this, WordPress released their new Gutenberg Editor. This comes with a new Gallery, the first version of which was a bit buggy but has the modern look that I wanted, and has improved over the last few months. (At time of writing there remains a bug where clicking on any photo in a gallery displays the first photo in the gallery not the one you clicked on. This is due to be fixed in mid-January.)

Switching to the new gallery improved page-generation times but without Flickr to optimise my images, I need to do this prior to upload to keep page-load times acceptable. This involves a two-step process:

  1. Use ImageMagick to resize images to no more than 2048 pixels on their longest edge: mogrify -resize 2048x2048 *.jpg (be careful, this changes the original files!)
  2. Reformat to be progressive JPEGs and apply lossless optimisation. There are a number of tools that can do this but ImageOptim is an efficient open-source drag-and-drop option for MacOS.

The final tweak, as recommended by Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, was to defer offscreen images. This should make the initial page render faster by not loading images that are not yet viewable, and was already available as part of the Jetpack add-on (Lazy Load Images).

Software Review: On1 Photo RAW 2018

On1 Photo is one of the many editing applications I use to process my photographs. I have previously written about my journey from using a single application (Apple’s Aperture) to many so an update post about the latest version seemed overdue. [Due to a delay in publishing this article, RAW 2019 is now available and 2018 is no longer the latest version!]

The upgrade from On1 Photo 10 to On1 Photo RAW had been a bit bumpy. The new features were great but some older ones had not made the transition. While I did not directly experience too many bugs, there were frequent bug-fix releases with the consequence that it seemed like every time the program was opened it wanted to update itself, interrupting my photo editing session. Consequently I did not rush to upgrade to the 2018 version when it was announced, the new features were not initially compelling and the current version was working well enough.

A few months ago I received a significant discount offer to upgrade. (This was before On1 had announced the 2019 version.) I also noticed that their most recent point release (free upgrade within the 2018 version) had added the ability to manage RAW+JPEG pairs in Browse.  Since this is how I shoot, I had found managing the sets of files separately to be tedious and been looking for a better file management solution.  I was also looking forward to trying out the panorama feature since I capture them too infrequently to invest in dedicated panorama software.

Immediately after starting with Photo RAW 2018 I realised that this was a more significant upgrade than I had expected. The interface felt comfortably familiar but also subtly tweaked to be more streamlined to use. The performance was significantly better too—I could not help feeling that this was how Photo RAW should have been at release, and had now arrived after 18 months of feedback and iterative improvements. 

If you were disappointed with the initial release of On1 Photo RAW then I can thoroughly recommend the upgrade to the 2018 version if you have not settled on some other tool instead. I have not upgraded further to the 2019 version, for similar reasons to why I did not upgrade to 2018 at the beginning. I am also waiting for Luminar 3 to be released since its promised libraries feature is very similar to the browse functionality that I use extensively in On1 and it will be interesting to compare them before committing my money. If you have yet to try On1 Photo RAW then their extensive collection of video tutorials is the best starting point—they can really help you understand how to get pleasing results from it.

Review: Blue Coffee Box

This is a review of the Blue Coffee Box I received a few weeks ago. To be completely transparent, I was given a free review box by Blue Coffee Box, I had not heard of their subscription club until their offer popped into my inbox. They are also offering £5 off your first order using code TBTO5.

As I wrote about in my previous post, this is a well put-together package that exudes class and quality. As someone who enjoys the range of flavours and tastes that coffee offers, I really liked that there were three different varieties to drink. Each bag has a good resealing mechanism so it is easy to keep fresh in the bag once opened—a good thing when you get excited about having to compare and contrast three different bags of coffee for a review and decide to open all three on the same day!  Each bag is 155g, a little bit smaller than a standard 227g supermarket bag, but with three in the box that adds up to about the same amount of coffee as two supermarket bags.  

My first opportunity to sample the coffee was for a cup of mid-morning pick-me-up. Using the flavour notes I decided that the occasion called for something a little bit lively, so went with the Finca La Bastilla, which was described as “notes of apple, pear, citrus, caramel.” This produced a drink that was smooth and natural tasting, with a rounded mouth-feel and was a little bit more-ish. Subsequent tastings showed it to be a really good all-rounder that could be drunk black or with a drop of milk, perhaps a little middle-of-the road but there is definitely room for that in my cupboard.

A bag of coffee

The second coffee I tasted was Bosque Lya. The flavour notes of milk chocolate and praline suggested this would be a little darker than the Finca La Bastilla and indeed it was. The chocolate flavour definitely came through but without any bitterness. The description of “milk chocolate” was very apt and I found it to be a very agreeable mellow coffee: perfect for after-dinner, but highly enjoyable at any time of day.

The final bag was Aldea Capucas. I was not sure what to expect from flavour notes of golden syrup, caramel and lemon since they are not flavours I would normally associate with a coffee. However it was another delicious cup of coffee, mild and rich-bodied with subtle flavours, and surprisingly sweet—milky coffee without any milk!

After tasting all three, I am happy to report this box contained three different, truly excellent, high quality coffees. Combined with the luxury presentation I have no hesitation in recommending this box as a gift for someone who claims to be a coffee aficionado, they will not be disappointed. This would also be a great present for someone who has yet to discover the joys of gourmet coffee, or coffee subscriptions, and would appreciate an introduction. 

Having established this is superb coffee that no one could be disappointed to receive, what about the subscription service itself? In addition to the quality of the coffee, important considerations include the ability to control the frequency of delivery since even a well-sealed bag will only keep coffee properly fresh for a few weeks. Another factor is how much choice is there over the style of coffee delivered? My three bags were all at the lighter, subtle, mellow and mild end of the roast spectrum which is serendipitously my preference, but I do know people who prefer a strong big mouth-feel dark roast so does the service allow for some flexibility and choice around that? These are important questions require a little more research so will be answered in a future post.

Blue Coffee Box

Since moving to suburbia, a Saturday morning run to Monmouth Coffee’s near-by roasting house to taste their current selection has required a lot more effort and travel.  The best alternative I have found is a coffee subscription: I am unable to taste a selection of coffees before purchase but it does ensure I have a constant supply of fresh and delicious beans available at home.

The good news for me and my fellow suburban dwellers is that there are an increasing number of home delivery options available and the nice people at Blue Coffee Box have just sent me one of their signature boxes containing three 155g bags of beans to try. The box is beautifully presented with a card describing the farm where the coffee was grown, and a few words to describe the flavours you might notice.

My box contains three coffees, two roasted by the same boutique team, Gentlemen Baristas in East London, and another by a small two-person roaster in Yorkshire. The post was unable to get it through our standard-sized letterbox but he was  happy to leave it in a safe place so there was no hassle receiving it. When I tested the parcel in the letterbox I could just about get it through, but it was a tight fit and required some wiggling—your mileage may vary, as they say.

A full review of the coffees will follow when I have had chance to fully enjoy them, but if any reader would like to try a box for themselves then the company have generously provided a £5 discount code for you—enter TBTO5 at checkout to claim.

Centre Court – Saturday 14th July 2018

Play started an hour earlier than usual with the continuation of last night’s epic Djokovic versus Nadal semi-final. Suspended at 11pm with the score Djokovic leading 2 sets to 1, since the match had started with the roof closed it continued under the roof, despite the hot sunshine. The closed roof added to the intensity of the match, and while the air conditioning kept the temperature pleasant, it created a very dry atmosphere—I was glad the roof was open for the subsequent matches.

Nadal came out of the chair firing on all cylinders and raced to a 3-0 lead in the first set played today. It was a weird pattern but every set where I was away from my seat for the first 3 games featured a break of serve! In all but one case this was subsequently wiped out so I didn’t feel I had missed the crucial part of the set. Despite being broken back by Djokovic, Nadal conjured up another break and served out the set to take us to a decider. The crowd was ecstatic—never could they have imagined when they purchased their ticket for the Ladies Final that there would be an hors d’oeuvre of this quality.

The tennis in that final set was sublime. Big power shots that would normally be winners repeatedly returned, break points denied by ace after ace, and sliced backhands sliding low over the net—a masterclass in shot making and retrieving from both players. After the score passed six games-all the tension ratcheted up to 11. After two hours of sitting the body starts to yearn to stretch, but the crowd remained packed, no one wanting to leave and potentially miss the decisive game. Nadal went 15-40 down, but recovered. Then it was Djokovic’s turn to overturn break points. But you felt Djokovic had the upper hand serving first and Nadal might just be running out of steam quicker than his opponent. And then suddenly it was 0-40 to Djokovic, three match points, and a forehand into the net from Nadal brought this exquisite contest to a conclusion after five hours and fourteen minutes on court.

Serena Williams versus Angelique Kerber promised to be a very different affair. An early break of Serena’s serve was wiped out to love in the fourth game. But Serena never looked comfortable on court—measured and almost a little weary between points—in contrast to her opponent who chased every ball with a spritely energy that produced winners off well placed balls that would ordinarily been good enough to force an error. When Serena tried counteract that by upping the aggression of her shots, she pushed the ball long and Kerber’s decisive steady play made her a deserving champion.

The Men’s Doubles offered an enjoyable dessert to the day. Bryan and Sock clinching the first and third sets with a single break, and their opponents Klaasen and Venus being worthy winners of a tight second set tie break. The fourth set looked to be heading to another tie break, Bryan saving break point at 5-6 with a big serve, but then on the next break point a careless foot fault (his second of the game) lost them the set! It was 9pm so the roof was closed and we were presented another fifth set shoot out under the lights.

The fifth set followed the pattern of the previous ones with few chances for either side—this was another masterclass display of high quality doubles tennis from two evenly matched teams. Balls rifled low and at the body of the net player returned by swift and dexterous reflexes. And then, in the 11th game, at 30-30 on their serve, the fine balance of play dipped slightly against Venus and Klaasen to give the tiniest of openings for their opponents to break serve, which they took. Now, Mike Bryan—villain of the 12th game in the previous set—was presented the chance to serve for the Championship. There was no repeat of the self-inflicted errors, and the title was won!

Sea Life Sydney Aquarium

Sydney is defined by its ocean setting, so what better way to experience the ocean than to visit the Aquarium! On a weekday not in the school holidays the queue to buy tickets was long and slow, and we had to purchase our tickets via smartphone from the queue!

Sydney 2018: An Instagram #Holiday 🇦🇺

When visiting a city for a few days at a relaxed pace, hanging out with locals, and staying in a residential neighbourhood rather than a touristy one, it is possible to imagine what it would be like to live there should the opportunity arise. With so many tasty brunches, day trips to the zoo and aquarium, a couple of evening visits to trendy restaurants, and many hours on the beach, our two weeks felt more like a continuous weekend that lasted a fortnight, which is perhaps the definition of a holiday!

I did take some “proper” photographs which will be published on this blog in due course but since this holiday was more about doing and experiencing than seeing, my Instagram feed perhaps gives the best flavour of the holiday—food, drinks, and local detail. Reviewing the raw photographs I did take with my camera, I realise that I inadvertently restricted my efforts to the classic and obvious Sydney photographic gems and disappointingly failed to capture any of the local character or street photography in the more off-the-beaten track neighbourhoods we visited.

With phone cameras such high quality these days, the Instagram moments I captured deserve better than an ephemeral life in the sidebar of this blog so here they are for posterity. 😎🇦🇺

A Visit to Sydney’s Manly

If there is one neighbourhood in Sydney that encapsulates everything about this modern beach-side metropolis, it is perhaps Manly. Even getting there is something special. Conventionally you depart from the urban grubbiness of Circular Quay, a place that is, in-theory, blessed with views of the spectacular twin landmarks of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge but neither are easily visible from the wharves crowded with throngs of tourists, and groups watching the buskers and street performers who create a cacophony of competing noise.

Once your ferry departs, those aforementioned landmarks, and indeed the harbour itself, suddenly open up their beauty to you, and the brisk salty breeze feels incredible after the baking heat of the city. The sun sparkles on the blue water as sail boats and the classic green and yellow ferries cruise through your view. Long after the Opera House shrinks to the size of a postage stamp in in the distance, the silver and glass skyscrapers of the CBD rise up shimmering in the sky, and look so neatly positioned next to the majestic dark bridge marking the horizon between blue sky and blue water.

If you can tear your eyes away from the view behind there are points of interest along the way, and glimpses of other destinations. The white stone of the Edwardian Bathers’ Pavilion at Balmoral makes it easy to spot Balmoral beach and reminisce about lazy days swimming in the refreshingly calm cool water and drinking flat whites on the beach in the shade of a palm tree.

Stepping onto land at Manly feels like arriving in a different world to Circular Quay. It is still Sydney, and there are still tourists, but the business and bustle has been replaced by a relaxed vibe as local and visitor mix happily in the pedestrianised Corso that takes you down the the Ocean Beach—should you choose to go there, because of course Manly also has two harbour beaches with gentle waves for those that like the other sort of beach experience. A little walk along the ocean promenade of bars and cafés takes you to the delightful family friendly cove of Shelly Beach which also has more gentle swimming and even some snorkelling potential that even Bondi and its beautiful neighbouring beaches cannot match.

Every suburb has its share of unique offerings, and a less good side, but I think when most people conjure the idea of Sydney, it is Manly that is closest to actually fulfilling it.

Six Brunch Places in Sydney

Are lists still on trend for bloggers?

  1. Luxe Woollahra – next door to the Armani Junior boutique and a vibe to match.
  2. Belo Bronte – Brazilian themed brunch overlooking the beach.
  3. Casa Ristorante Italiano Darling Harbour – more lunch than brunch, but proper pizza on the waterfront.
  4. Homestead kiosk in Centennial Park – great coffee and banana bread for the Yummy Mummies while they watch the kids in the adventure playground.
  5. Rushcutters Bay kiosk – another trendy hangout with quality coffee conveniently located right next to a fun playground.
  6. Ruby’s Diner Waverley – locals’ hangout I happened upon via Instagram. Tasty food and dairy-free cakes (yes, plural).