Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Chaga

What is chaga?

Chaga is type of conk, shelf mushroom, bracket fungi, or polypore. These are all different names used to reference a woody fungi protruding from tree trunks. 

Many people assume all mushrooms are squishy, so when you first encounter chaga you may be surprised that it is a mushroom at all.  You may also be surprised that it is one of the most talked about mushrooms these days. The latin for chaga is inonotus obliquus, which looks tricky to pronounce but isn’t, so say it with me now: In-oh-knot-us-Oblique-us. 

Chaga has long been held in high regard in Russia, China, and other Northern, boreal cultures. The word itself, tschaga, is of Russian origin, borrowed from northeastern dialect called Komi. The Chinese names for it are Hua Jie Kong Jun or Bahua Rong. The Cree name is pōsākan. The Chipewyan and Ojibway name is Cha’a’ihtthi.  In Japanese kabanoanatake, and in German tschagapilz.

What does chaga look and feel like?

Chaga looks like a growth, a burnt blister, or as described in the Cree legend – a scab, growing somewhere along the trunk of the birch tree. The portion of Chaga that is harvested is two toned, with a brittle, coal-black exterior crust (called sclerotia) and a cork-like, golden-brown interior. Unless it is a very young, there will be a higher ratio of the brown interior. Chaga’s texture is something between coarse, rubbery wood or porous, crumbly rock. It requires a bit of force to cut it with a knife, and is not something you’d want to chew on.

Photo credit: Kevin Kossowan

Can you eat chaga?

No. The texture is like cork and requires an extraction process for its compounds to become bioavailable. (Do not simply add ground chaga to your smoothies or granola bars). Chaga is pleasant tasting as a tea, which is the most common way it is consumed. Next most common is as a tincture. The most complete process is a dual extraction involving alcohol and heat. As chaga is ‘trendy’ right now, you’ll find many products using it in chai or coffee blends or supplements. You may also encounter health-centric or forage-focused restaurants using it to flavour dishes and deserts.

Food or Medicine?

Garlic is something that many people eat every day and can also be used medicinally. Similarly cranberry, cloves, seaweed, broth, green tea and many other commonly consumed natural foods are used to treat certain ailments. 

Chaga is considered a cousin to other ‘medicinal conks’ like reishi, which have both preventative and possibly curative properties, but because Chaga tastes so good, it is more likely to be taken habitually and/or purely for pleasure than other ‘medicinal mushrooms’. 

As with anything taken in high concentration and frequency, one should consult their health care practitioner.

What are chaga’s health properties?

Chaga’s most noted accolade is its antioxidant power. Perhaps you’ve heard blueberries toted as a super food because of their anti-oxidant value? Blueberries measure 24 on the ORAC scale (oxygen radical absorption capacity), while chaga can measure 36,000 or more depending on where it’s harvested and how it’s extracted.

Chaga is also nutrient dense, containing the B vitamin complex, vitamin D, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc, iron, manganese, magnesium, calcium.

Chaga is used to balance blood sugar and blood pressure, to purify the liver, to relieve pain, to modulate the immune system and as an overall tonic.

Superfood is often just a marketing ploy (as in the case of blueberries being ‘high’ in antioxidants) but chaga is a bit of an all round hero, or shall we say an anti-hero. Not because of any villainous flaw,  but because it is reputed to have Antiallergenic, Antibacterial, Anticancer, Antihyperglycemic, Anti-inflammatory, Antilmutagenic, Antinocicpetive, Antiparasitic, Antioxidant, Antitumor, Antiviral abilities.

The compounds most responsible for the above benefits are beta-glucans, polysacharides, betulinic acid, phytosterals, and polyphenols. 

There are clearly benefits to consuming chaga, even if one only considers the anecdotal evidence of the many Northern cultures with chaga traditions. Though there is promising research on Chaga’s effectiveness on fighting a multitude of cancers, much more research is needed before determining its reliability to cure serious diseases.

What does chaga taste like?

Fully brewed chaga tea is smooth and balanced, meaning it does not lean toward sour, salty, sweet or umami. Some pallets might find it ever so slightly bitter, but in our experience, everyone who tries chaga responds favourably. It is dark, earthy, and yang. It has the chocolateyness of cacao but less bitter, the neutrality of rooibos but less floral, the body of dark roast coffee without any acidity – so it also makes a nice caffeine or desert substitute.

If you are not enjoying the taste, or if it tastes like tree water, there is a good chance that you don’t have good chaga (as in a cultivated variety, or cultivated from a tree other than birch), or more likely, that you have not prepared it properly.  

How do you prepare it?

Chunk (also called rocks or nuggets) vs Powder

The best chaga tea is made with chunks in a crockpot. Use 1-3 chunks or about 15-20 g per litre of water. Steep on low for at least 4-6 hours, but overnight is best. The color of fully brewed chaga tea should be darker than a cup of strong, black coffee. Check out this video.

More color > better flavour > more health benefit.

Store extra tea in a mason jar in the fridge to reheat later, or use it in your smoothies or cooking. Don’t throw away the chunks! Sometimes you can get a second or even 3rd brew out of the same chunks. Just add more water to your crockpot and rebrew. Or, take out the chunks and let them dry out on the counter for later use. You can add ‘spent chunks’ to you broths or sauces. 

No crock pot? No problem. Use a pot with a tight fitting lid, but you will have to keep an eye on evaporation. You can also use a thermos in a pinch, but you will not get the same depth of color or flavour this way.

Chaga powder is widely available. Some people use a coffee grinder to grind their chunks into powder, which is hard on the grinder but doable. You can also use a hammer or a cheese grater – careful with your fingers! In theory, the increased surface area of the powder makes for a quicker extraction, but ignore instructions that say you can brew up a cup in minutes. You’ll be flushing your money down the drain as it won’t taste as good and you will not be accessing the full benefits. Just as with a good soup or sourdough bread, a key ingredient to a great cup of chaga is time. Another consideration with powder is that you will need to strain it as little bits of chaga grinds can be unpleasant. You can use a coffee filter or a french press but again, if you brew it just like coffee, you won’t get the same depth. Lastly you are less likely to reuse the strained powder than you are the chunks, especially if you want to wait a few days between batches as the powder is trickier to dry out.

Chaga powder is certainly better than no chaga, and it may save you a bit of time but when considering taste, ease, potency, reusability, and value for your dollar, chunks in a crockpot is hands down the winner. 

Photo credit: Sandy Weatherhall & Kevin Kossowan

Tincture

To make a tincture, simply place your chunks or powder in a mason jar and cover it with vodka, or your choice alcohol base of 40-80% alcohol. Use a tight fitting lid and place the jar on the shelf and forget about it for some time, at least 4 -8 weeks. You can then take a couple of drops daily under the tongue.

Dual Extraction 

If you want to maximize the bioavailabilty of all of chaga’s compounds, first make the tincture, then separate the infused alcohol with a strainer, and then use the hot water extraction method as described above. Combine the steeped tea with the infused alcohol as 1 part tea : 2 parts tincture. This ratio is important to preserve the dual extraction. The reason you want both extractions is that some of the medicinal compounds can only be dissolved in alcohol and others only in hot water.

Where does chaga grow?

Chaga grows predominantly on birch trees, but may also be found on ash, elm, beech, alder, and perhaps some other species. Infrequently it is also found on other trees in the birch family. Most scientists view chaga as an infection that invades the tree through wounds, such as where a branch has broken off. The host tree can live for some time with the chaga, but eventually it will rot. Chaga’s benefits come mainly from concentrating the betulinic acid found in birch bark so when chaga is harvested from other types of trees or when cultivated, the properties and taste will be inferior. There have been claims that Chaga not sourced from birch can make you feel ill… so use caution.

As chaga’s popularity has grown so has the market for cultivating it, the taste and quality of cultivated chaga may be inferior to that of wild harvested chaga. We recommend, and chose to only harvest and drink chaga growing wild on birch trees.

Photo credit: Kevin Kossowan

Does harvesting chaga kill the tree?

Chaga is a perennial that continues to grows bigger each spring through fall. It’s starts off as an infection that gets into a host tree, eventually bursts out of it,  and ultimately kills it. The part that is harvested, is the mycelial mass. As you harvest closer to the tree, there will be more bits of decaying wood because as the fruiting body matures it digests its host. Cutting chaga, is like cutting a wart off a finger. Unless you cut deeply, the infection remains and the wart will return. In this case, that’s a good thing because we like this particular wart and so to ensure it keeps growing, we don’t harvest to closely to the tree. The same tree can produce harvestable sclerotia every 3 years and can live for decades with the infection. Care must be taken not to wound the tree with your ax or knife. Do not try to dig out the chaga from the core of the tree, this will shorten the life of the tree. 

Chaga should be a winter harvest. The cold is correlated with peak potency because as the spring sap flow returns, the chaga’s potency is diluted by the extra water. Winter is also when the trees are dormant, so they will “feel” less.

What else is chaga good for?

If the myriad of potential benefits wasn’t enough to get you interested in Chaga perhaps you will admire its functionality as a fire starter. Sometimes referred to as the tinder conk, Chaga was a critical resource in helping ancient peoples survive northern winters. Readily available in boreal forests, those living off the land would use the dry fungus to carry a smoldering coal from one camp to another, blowing the coal into a new fire each day. If your a flint and steel buff, you can use a thin slice of chaga to catch a spark from your flint pretty easy, as easy as char cloth.

Not mush room for improvement.

So it tastes good, it’s good for all kinds of ailments, a little goes a long way, and it can keep you warm through winters as a cup of tea and a fire starter. If you’d like to discover this amazing mushroom, keep your eyes up as you walk through a forest of birch in the winter time. If you don’t often find yourself walking through a birch forest in the winter time, you may also get some at untamedfeast.com/shop.





References

Stamets, P. (2005). Mycelium running: how mushrooms can help save the world. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Hobbs, C. (2003). Medicinal mushrooms: an exploration of tradition, healing, & culture. Summertown TN: Botanica Press.

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