We are looking at the end of the traditional Kopi Man. Oh, our Nanyang style coffee heritage will live on with the likes of Killiney, Ya Kun and Toast Box, but you are not going to be able to find anymore of the traditional Kopi sock masters in our next generation. The reason is very simple. These mom and pop kopi stalls sell a cup of kopi for 70 cents, they operate in unglamorous conditions and their equipment don’t come with Italian sounding names. If you are a Gen Y Singaporean, would you choose to be a Coffee Barista or a Kopi Sock Master? If you managed to tender for a hawker stall, would you choose to sell a cup of Kopi for 70 cents or a cappuccino for $3? I think that in twenty year’s time, it will be hard to find a Singaporean who is still pulling a cup of kopi through the sock. But, there will be many who would be experts at pulling coffee from an expresso machine!
One of the reasons that you are still able to buy a cup of Kopi for 70 cents at the hawker centre is that they are still being sold by pioneer hawkers who have been chased off the streets in the 60’s and 70’s are relocated to the hawker centres. Their rental is still a few hundred dollars only and so they can afford to open for only part of the day and still sell you a cup of kopi for less than $1. They don’t even need to focus on selling kaya toast and eggs sets to increase their revenue. All Mr Tay does ninety percent of the time is to make kopi and teh. He does get the occasional order of steamed bread and soft boiled eggs but that is not his core business. What he is doing is only possible because he was a hawker selling kopi with his father from a pushcart at the carpark of Blk 157, Toa Payoh Lor 1 way back in the 70’s. By sheer coincidence, that was exactly where I was living in the 70’s but I guess I was too young to drink kopi at the time, so I don’t recall their stall. He and his father were then relocated to the hawker centre in Toa Payoh before they moved to their present location around 8 years ago. The one thing that really struck me about the stall is the fact that they are still using brass pots to make their kopi. Brass is not as hardy as stainless steel they they need to be changed more frequently which is why lot of hawkers have changed to stainless steel pots. However, Mr Tay still insists on using brass pots because they are better conductors of heat. He did switch to stainless steel for a period of time but reverted back to brass as he feels that kopi made in brass pots still taste better.
Aside from the pots, Mr Tay shared with me that the other important ingredient, aside from the obvious use of good quality kopi powder, is how the kopi is made by “pulling” it from one pot to the other. The aeration makes a difference to the taste of the kopi. The fact that there is a consistent queue at his stall also means that every cup of kopi you order is made fresh instead of being left in the pot over a hot stove for long periods. Mr Tay’s kopi is the real old school type that is fragrant, strong and bitter. A little too bitter for Rockett Girl who doesn’t really like her kopi that way, but if you have grown up with really strong kopi, then this will surely hit the spot! 4.25/5
If you are looking for steamed bread, then this is one stall where you can find them. They are still using a special rack which fits over the water boiler. This is not really very efficient as it is the same place where he scoops out water to make his kopi! So it is just as well that he gets very few orders for steamed bread. Most people don’t even know that he does it! Because of the small volume, they now use the normal square loaves from Giant instead of traditional bread. They also don’t make their own kaya at the stall, so they aren’t really specialized. However, they are still super soft and shiok and for $1 a set, it is certainly more convenient than having to steam your own! 4/5 Conclusion Kopi sock masters are a dying breed. Enjoy them while they are still around because in 20 years time, I am not sure who will be holding the sock!