Chaga mushroom is a fungal sclerotia that grows most commonly on Birch trees within the circumpolar region of the northern hemisphere. It has been used as a folk medicine for centuries, primarily as an immune booster, remedy for digestive and respiratory ailments and an overall vitality tonic. It has now been studied extensively and proven to contain a wide array of different nutrients and medicinal constituents that can provide us with A LOT of health benefits.
One of the most commonly asked questions regarding Chaga is “How can you prepare Chaga as a tea?” So here we will take a step-by-step look at how best to do that, but if you’re more of a video person, I made the ‘video equivalent’ of this blog which you can watch here:
Chaga is composed of two main parts – its dark, hard outer surface, and its softer, cork-like orange interior. Some people say that we should discard the outer ‘skin’ of Chaga when preparing it as a tea, but this isn’t a good idea because the darker surface of the sclerotia contains a very high concentration of betulin – a chemical manufactured with the Birch host that Chaga grows upon, and concentrated manyfold into the surface of the Chaga. Betulin is a very ‘anti’ substance, because it’s a strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antimalarial, and anti-tumour/anti-cancer medicine. It also modulates the immune system, enhances the secretion of bile from the gall bladder and increases the intracellular uptake of oxygen.
The copper coloured interior of Chaga contains beta-glucans – a type of polysaccharide that enhances and modulates immune function. It basically ‘balances’ the immune system by stimulating it when necessary and calming it down when that is required also, so it is a suitable medicine for all types of immunological issues. Chaga’s beta glucans also help to regulate cholesterol balance, blood pressure and blood sugar, making it a great adjunct medicine for people that are treating high cholesterol, stress and diabetes. Beta glucans also contribute further to Chaga’s anti-cancer arsenal. The interior also contains fungal lanostanes that possess more tumour-inhibiting properties as well as anti-candida compounds. There are substances within Chaga (triterpene compounds for example) that are not soluble in water, but everything mentioned above is generally water-soluble. So considering this, it’s very important to work with the whole substance when making a tea.
The potential health benefits of Chaga are vast. If you want to take a more in-depth look at what it has to offer you can watch this comprehensive video I made on the subject a while back:
There are a lot of polarised opinions on how best to make Chaga tea – some people say you should steep whole chunks of it in hot water for 20 minutes, some say to lightly cook it for 30/40 minutes and some people say to boil the hell out of it for 5 days! People seem to become rather attached to specific methods for preparing this fungus, to the point where they will launch vitriolic, scathing attacks on all those who recommend an alternative method to their own. A rather unhealthy pass-time if truth be told.
One might speculate that such people are not consuming enough Chaga, but rather ruminating on it from a primarily intellectual stance. Unfortunately Chaga doesn’t bring said health benefits from mere intellectual speculation alone! We need to consume it in order for it to work, and fortunately I have prepared it in every way imaginable and have narrowed down what I believe to be the most effective method for drawing out all of the beneficial, water-soluble constituents that can be done at home by anyone, anywhere. After trying various strategies for Chaga tea making – from the sensible to the outlandish – I have come to the conclusion that the best way to prepare it at home is very similar to……. the original folk method for preparing it! Who would have thought…?
A CHAGA ACTIVISTS SIDE-NOTE
You’re not going to get very far with this project without first getting your hands on some Chaga. If you live in an ecosystem where Chaga proliferates then you can wild harvest it, otherwise you can buy it as a dried mushroom from a reputable, sustainable source. Sustainability is a HUGE issue where Chaga is concerned. It can take decades for Chaga to mature, and it only reproduces once maturity has been reached. At maturity Chaga is medicinally at its ripest, but once it has produced the fruiting body (that releases the reproductive spores), it will die. Chaga harvested prior to this stage of development will be unable to reproduce and there will be no ‘offspring’. Some people break off a bit of Chaga and leave a little on the tree so that it can regrow and continue to reproduce, but this has never really been proven to work, and plus, the Chaga can only live as long as its host. If we set Chagas development back many years by significantly reducing its size, it may not reach maturity before the tree it is growing upon dies. This method is more of a convenient excuse than a tried and tested method for sustainably harvesting Chaga from the wild.
Chaga has a very important role to play within its wild ecosystem – a role that we currently understand very little about. It is not possible to cultivate the Chaga sclerotia at this time – science is yet to catch up with the demand. The mycelium can be cultivated with success, but it doesn’t contain the same magnitude of health giving properties as the sclerotium. When we take Chaga from the wild it should come from a vastly supportive environment that can afford to spare a certain percentage of its medicine for human consumption. There aren’t a proverbial busload of such ecosystems left in the world today, and so we should tread carefully. Unfortunately, we don’t.
Companies commercially harvesting Chaga should (I believe) put down a restriction on the amount of Chaga they will harvest per year from any given ecosystem. Once that quota is reached, harvesting should cease until the following year. Calculations like this are little understood, generally because nobody is doing it. Areas such as Siberia contain a relative abundance of Chaga, due in part because large expanses of that area are not easily accessible to people. Siberia holds some of the best Chaga in the world, and it is one of the most sustainable locations… for now. On the other hand, places such as Scotland have such a decimated population of wild Chaga that harvesting for commercial purposes is a purely short term, profit-driven endeavour with little-to-no thought spared for the ecological impact resulting from such shortsightedness.
Maybe you came here for instructions on making the tea and don’t care so much about all of this. If so, sort your priorities out and understand the bigger picture! This is a critically important issue that mindless, self-centred consumption is drastically compounding.
Anyway, with that said, let’s prepare the tea!
Your Chaga needs to be dried properly prior to use. If you have bought it will be dried already. If you harvest it yourself then you’ll need to take care of this part of the procedure. Harvesting is best done during Spring or Autumn when the tree is circulating optimal nutrients into the Chaga. Drying is best done outdoors in natural sunlight. It can be dried in a couple of days like this, but obviously this isn’t always possible, especially in the places that Chaga likes to grow. Alternatively it can be dried in a food dehydrator or you can dry it in the oven with the door open and the heat down low.
It should be broken into smaller pieces – something that can be done before or after drying. Traditionally it was ground up using a pestle and mortar. This is still a good way to do it, but you’ll need a LARGE mortar to contain all of the Chaga pieces – it tends to fragment and fly all over the place. Plus it can be pretty time consuming. Personally I prefer to wrap the Chaga in a towel and hammer it into smaller pieces. The towel stops it from flying everywhere, but you have to make sure to hammer it on a surface that can take the repeated impact. Kitchen work surfaces are not ideal. The floor is good. Outdoors is good. Hardwood surfaces on the floor and outdoors are ideal.
When it is in smaller fragments, I like to grind it up in a Vitamix blender. It turns it into a very fine powder within moments – almost like a very fine flour. If you do it this way just make sure that you’re not using a less powerful blender, because you’ll kill it right there and then. The Vitamix blender I use is 2 horse power, which is pretty hardcore for a blender. If you don’t have one of these then fear not – the traditional method makes a great workout!
You’re going to need about 80 grams of powdered Chaga per one gallon of water. Place the Chaga and the water in a gallon-sized pan and put the lid on. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and allow it to simmer. Traditionally it was simmered for 4 hours, but this was never done using only a fine powder. There would have been some chunks in there as well. If you have used a blender then you can simmer it for 3 hours – I find this to be equally sufficient. If you are using uneven chunks/powdered Chaga then you’ll want to give it the full 4 hours, or until the water is reduced to somewhere between 50 and 25% of what it was originally.
At this point you’ll have a very concentrated hot water extract of Chaga that will resemble black ink or treacle. It will be strong, potent and deeply nourishing. You won’t get this kind of result by steeping it for a while in hot water. It’s a nice ideology that Chaga can be fully extracted by steeping it in hot water, but in reality it just isn’t possible. The chitin (tough, fibrous polysaccharide) that Chaga is composed of requires consistent heat for hours in order to break down, denature and empty its contents into the water solvent.
So, now you’ll need to strain it off using a sieve and a towel/cloth. You can actually strain off plenty of tea using just the sieve, but if you want to wring out the Chaga debris you’ll need to use a cloth, and you’ll also want the Chaga to have cooled down a bit so that you don’t burn your hands while your squeezing the life out of it. Chaga makes an awesome dye, so remember that before you leave the cloth to dry and be permanently discoloured. If you give it a good hot water rinse straight away and then wash it thoroughly (by machine or by hand) it will remain exactly the same colour. Leaving it covered in Chaga tea/debris will permanently alter the colour though. You have been warned.
The tea can be consumed right there and then, or you can store it in an airtight glass kilner jar/mason jar in the fridge (or a cool dry place) for 48 hours. It can then be used as a base for smoothies, soak water for oatmeal, a liquid base for cooking grains or vegetables, soups or broths, or whatever you can think of. It will turn an otherwise ordinary meal into something medicinally potent. Seriously. Parents take note: this is an easy way to sneak health enhancing goodies into your kids meals. Sure, it will change the colour of the meal to a dark, earthy hue, but Chaga contains vanillic acid which makes for a bittersweet taste that is actually very pleasant indeed. I’ve yet to meet a kid (or adult) that doesn’t love it.
Also remember: your leftover Chaga from the first cook is by no means spent – you can recook it another two or three times. No need to cook it for another three to four hours though, simply fill the pan back up with water and bring it back to a simmer, and keep it there for half an hour, at which point you can serve it again. After two to three cooks you’ll notice that the tea is no longer jet black with a strong flavour and aroma. It will be comparatively paler/weaker. This is the point at which this particular batch is over, but it still has a lot of value when added to your compost or used as a mulch for plants.
Chaga is a genuine, majestic gift, but like all natural wonders it involves a strong degree of responsibility and stewardship. Clearly we are not imparting such conscientiousness towards Chaga (and most of nature) at this time. It is my hope that this humble blog may contribute (if only a little) to the contrary…