Once every few years I'll go out in the Winter to enjoy the birch trees and gather some chaga mushrooms for tea. Mostly as an excuse to go on a winter hike and enjoy some fresh air. Today I'll share a few of my opinions on the topic, as well as some newer information that might make some think twice about drinking it at all.
I've been harvesting Chaga (Innonotus obliquus) for around 15 years now and it was one of the first wild mushrooms I picked from a guide and studied the habitat to understand it. Drinking it is purely a novelty for me.
I don't take it for health benefits, and I feel medicinal mushrooms are often co-opted by people selling things with greatly over-exaggerated claims.
When to Harvest Chaga
Chaga looks like a dark, asymmetrical black mass growing from birch trees easily confused with burls or even cherry knot fungus by some. I harvest it in the winter as it's easier to see after the leaves have fallen. I may harvest some every 3-4 years. I occasionally make a batch of tea if I feel a cold coming.
Here's a few tips on harvesting:
- Only harvest chaga from living birch trees. Mushrooms taken from dead trees have died and tea made from them tastes like drinking a glass of mold.
- You'll need a hammer and a chisel to remove it from the tree.
- Practice sustainable wild crafting. Take only what you need, and you don't need a lot. Drunk occasionally, one pound of chaga lasts me multiple years.
- Know your local regulations as it may be illegal to harvest from State Land.
I asked my friend and author of the book Untamed Mushrooms Michael Karns his opinions on when the mushrooms should be harvested which I thought were logical. Here's what he said:
"The assumption is that the beneficial compound in Chaga (aside from various polysaccharides like inotodial, ergesterol peroxide) is betulinic acid. Betulinic acid comes from the name Betula, which is the scientific name for birch trees...The tree goes dormant during winter and the hypothesis is that the betulinic acid is concentrated in the sclerotic growth during the dormancy".
If that's true or not I can't say, but I think sharing the hypothesis, at the very least can help persuade people to only harvest it during the winter to help promote sustainability.
How to Prepare Chaga for Tea
After the mushrooms are harvested they need to be cleaned, then broken down into pieces using a hammer and chisel.
I do this in a garage as the crumbly, outer black surface creates debris during processing.
Next the mushrooms are put on a dehydrator tray. Dry the chaga at 100 F for 24 hours or until bone dry.
Store the dried mushrooms in a glass jar in a cool dry place until you need them and they'll last for years.
Chaga powder, in my opinion, is a waste of chaga, for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, grinding the mushrooms to powder results in a single use. Chunks of chaga can be re-used multiple times (at least 2-3) without a noticeable loss in flavor.
Secondly, the ground mushroom powder is extremely fine. It's so fine, that even strained through a coffee filter there will be small, near imperceptible debris that add tannins and a slightly unpleasant, granular texture I can taste.
How to Brew Chaga Tea from Chunks
While most teas that are an infusion of boiling water, chaga is a decoction, or a long-simmered infusion. The mushroom pieces are combined with water (roughly 8 cups per ½ oz chunk) and cooked for at least 30 minutes or until the water is dark like black tea.
After the tea is made, the chunks can and should be re-used. I put the used chunk in a jar in the fridge until I need it.
To make additional batches, I combine the used mushroom chunk with more water and cook it again, repeating the process until the mushroom's spent, at least two to 3 times.
The book Medicinal Mushrooms: The Human Clinical Trials also discusses traditional methods of fermenting the decoction for extraction of compounds by indigenous healers in Siberia. They compare the benefits as you might contrast sauerkraut and cabbage.
What Does Chaga Tea Taste Like?
In short, it's near flavorless. It has a subtle, woodsy aroma reminiscent of very mild tea. Give it to someone unfamiliar with it and they may say it tastes like nothing, or that it tastes like tree bark.
If cooked for a longer period of time the color gets darker and develops a slightly stronger flavor, but it will never taste as strong as, say, regular black tea.
There's lot's of flowery information online extolling Chaga's health benefits, that it cures cancer, and plenty of other claims, but not much on the side effects. The most recent writing I've read on it is the book Medicinal Mushrooms: The Human Trials.
The studies quoted to support the medicinal proclamations of the mushroom are typically from Russia and over 40-60 years old. None of the studies were randomized, placebo based, controlled or blinded.
What we do know about chaga now is that there's definitely other side effects tool. I had a diabetic girlfriend who couldn't drink it for blood sugar issues. Chaga doesn't contain caffeine, but It has stimulant properties that keep me up at night if I drink it before bed.
Here's some good examples of problematic reactions to chaga from Medicinal Mushrooms:
- Caution against large or prolonged ingestion as a recreational beverage due to oxalate content. Simmering chaga for 2-4 hours will increase the extraction of oxalates
- Paul Kroeger, a mycologist from Vancouver, recorded 9 cases of adverse reactions chaga products.
- A 72 year old woman with cancer took 4-5 teaspoons (of powder) daily for six months, suffering liver damage and irreversible kidney failure from oxalates.
- It should not be taken two weeks before surgery.
- Avoid if taking blood thinners. There are multiple reports of entire mucous membranes sloughing off in those taking blood thinners.
- High oxalate content could cause issues with osteoporosis.
- Diabetics should probably avoid it.
More Wild Beverages
How to Make Chaga Tea
- 1 4 quart soup pot with lid
- ½ oz dried chaga mushroom fresh can also be used
- 8 cups water or filtered water
Make the Tea
- Combine the chaga and water in a pot, cover and bring to a simmer.
- Turn the heat to as low as possible and cook for at least 30 minutes or longer for a stronger flavor.
- Remove the mushroom, put in a jar and store in the refrigerator to make additional batches of tea.
- Reuse the mushroom until it no longer makes tea. 2-4 infusions can typically be made from one chunk. For a stronger brew, cut the water in half or simmer uncovered until the tea develops a dark color.