Maniac Mike and I headed up to Minister Creek a couple days ago to look for wildlife sign and to collect wild Chaga. We brought back a considerable amount each, which we will now dry and process to make into a healthful tea to see us through winter. For those unfamiliar with this miracle cure-all, 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.
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-tumor/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 colored 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 tumor-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.
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.
Chaga needs to be dried properly prior to use, in an oven, dehydrator, or in open sunshine. 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.
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. The tea is ready to drink, or you can store it in an airtight glass jar in the fridge 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. Chaga contains vanillic acid which makes for a bittersweet taste that is actually very pleasant.
The 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 flavor 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.