The untold heritage of Sulu’s fascinating coffee culture

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Sulu Coffee, one of the products of Herman & Co. — a concept brand co-owned by the fashion stylist Bea Constantino with her brother, Dinjo — traces its roots to a vibrant Tausug coffee culture, and an illustrious family heritage that crossed the German seas and found its way to our shores. Photos by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A single coffee bean tells many tales. It can tell the story of a humble coffee farmer in Mindanao, trading his gun for a shovel as he chooses a life of peace. It can tell the story of a love deferred, as it gives way to a holy war waged for belief. For the Constantino siblings — marketing consultant Dinjo and fashion stylist Bea, who co-own Herman & Co. — a coffee bean tells the story of a curious family heritage, one that has its origins from German seas, and spans for more than a century, as now distilled in Sulu Coffee.

Sulu Coffee is half of the twin products of Herman & Co., a local concept brand that mainly features woven clothing made by the artisans of the Yakan tribe in Zamboanga. Bea handles the indigenous clothing side of the brand — she tells us it’s a marriage of the family heritage and her years of being a fashion stylist — while Dinjo, who similarly looks to family to support the brand, handles the sourcing and distribution of the fragrant roasts. The two decided to merge the two products together in one brand, to represent their German-Chavacano-Tausug heritage. “German because of Herman Leopold Schück [their great-great grandfather], who’s from Breslau, Germany,” says Bea, “Chavacano, because of our grandfather Roseller Lim from Zamboanga, and [our grandmother, Ahmina Mustafa] Schück from Jolo.”

Herman & Co.’s storied Sulu Coffee comes from a cooperative in Patikul, Sulu, Sulu being otherwise known as Lupah Sug (“The Land of the Current”), whose Tausug natives consider coffee as an essential part of their culture. Sulu coffee (or kahawa sug) is a requisite whenever bangbang or latal (Tausug meals) are served, for example, and is sometimes drunk using two glasses from which the hot liquid is alternatively poured back and forth, to cool and release its best taste. Coffee there is even sold in half cups, say the siblings, to cater to whimsical demands of local coffee drinkers.

Sulu Coffee Sulu coffee is otherwise known as "kahawa sug" for its native Tausug drinkers, who consider it an essential part of their local culture. Photos by JL JAVIER  

Sulu, in fact, was once known as the producer of the best coffee beans in the country, if not for the armed conflict in the area that made it lag behind in production. Mindanao is the biggest producer of coffee, accounting for 75 percent of Philippine production. Sulu alone produces around 7,300 metric tons annually. “All the coffees from the Philippines, masarap naman ‘yan,” says Dinjo. “What makes Sulu very ripe for the coffee businesses is the soil is very fertile. With the very fertile soil, the coffee is not too bitter, and is not acidic at all.”

While Dinjo and Bea only started to attempt to go into the coffee business around three years ago, their own brand of coffee arguably has had its remote beginnings in the 1860s, when Dinjo and Bea’s great-great grandfather Captain Herman Leopold Schück first visited Jolo and became Sultan Jamalul Alam’s blood brother (by way of blood compact). Captain Schück, a merchant mariner, decided to settle in the Philippines after striking a close friendship with the sultan, and resided in Lukut Lapas, Jolo, which he turned into a plantation with 20,000 shrubs of coffee, among others. The story is told in the book “Captain Herman Leopold Schück: The Saga of a German Sea Captain in the 19th Century Sulu-Sulawesi Seas,” by Michael Schück Montemayor.

Sulu Coffee Siblings Bea and Dinjo Constantino decided to put coffee and clothing together in one brand, whose name is reflective of the origins of their family's rich heritage. Photo by JL JAVIER  

It is clear that coffee runs in the Constantino siblings’ blood, who carry Captain Schück’s name as their middle names. “Now we’re just trying to [close] the gap between Manila and our hometown,” says Bea. In the recently concluded Habi: Philippine Textile Council fair, where Herman and Co. displayed its wares, Dinjo shares how people exclaimed, “Jolo! May coffee pala dun?” upon learning of Sulu Coffee. The reaction may be unsurprising considering the usual perception of the armed conflict in Mindanao, but it is this very narrative that Dinjo and Bea are trying to expand as they market their coffee from the South and bring it to Manila, and proudly tell the stories of Captain Schück and the farmers who plant and harvest the aromatic crop.

To effectively market Sulu Coffee is to stress alternative narratives, according to the siblings. One is the narrative of a coffee harvest: the ripe coffee cherries from which Sulu Coffee is made are individually handpicked by farmers, as opposed to picked in an “armalite” fashion, that does not discriminate between good and bad beans. Another narrative, says Bea, revolves around their experience of working with a developing farmers’ cooperative in Patikul, as the local government highlights coffee as a potential primary agricultural product of Sulu. Not to be forgotten is the ubiquitous role coffee plays in Tausug culture in light of the locals’ organic appreciation of the bitter drink.

Sulu Coffee A young Julius Schück, Bea and Dinjo's great grandfather, stands with his wife Ruckaya-Mustafa Schück. Julius is the son of Captain Herman Leopold Schück, who, after arriving in the Philippines from Germany as a merchant mariner, settled in Jolo and proceeded to plant coffee shrubs in his plantation in Lukut Lapas. Photo courtesy of DINJO CONSTANTINO  

Combined with the Constantinos’ family heritage, the goal for Sulu Coffee is not only to sell taste, but more importantly, to attempt to recreate an experience often marred by familiar images of war and hate. This remains despite the risks imposed by traveling to Zamboanga (for the Yakan woven clothing) and Sulu (for the coffee). “My mother, who spent her summers in Jolo like it was Boracay,” says Bea, “would tell us how beautiful it was. We don’t have that, and we don’t know what means.”

To know that meaning, at least for Bea and Dinjo, means not only to offer good coffee which has storied origins, but also to find more purpose and intention on what they now do. Thus the impetus for them to uphold and enrich not only the family heritage, but also local cultures that are due respect and recognition, which may make a difference, no matter how small, in the lives of weavers and coffee farmers. “My brother and I, along with our cousins, we’re just trying to have a little movement, a little awakening,” Bea says. “And maybe change will happen.”

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For more details on Herman and Co.’s Sulu Coffee and native Yakan clothing, visit their Instagram account.