Chaga Medicine and Sustainability
Chaga is earthy, dark, and mysterious with centuries of mythology and folklore behind its use from British Columbia to Russia and China. Throughout history it seems to have been touted as a cure-all and a secret to immortality or, at least, to good health and longevity. Chaga is currently a "super herb" along the same lines as a "super food" which has catapulted it into the spotlight to the point everyone's heard of chaga or is using chaga in some way as a herbal remedy or supplement. Despite its current popularity, I've found many people still lack the knowledge of what chaga is, where it comes from, how it should be harvested, and how it should be processed and used for medicine. Instead of this knowledge being shared, I see herbalists telling people not to harvest or use chaga, that it is at risk from over-harvesting, and that there are no human trials proving all the medicinal properties it is attributed with. I would really like to help clear this all up by simply sharing facts instead of propagating more fake lore or scare tactics about this useful medicinal fungus.
What is Chaga?
Medicinal Properties of Chaga
How to Sustainably Harvest Chaga
The more careful you are in your chaga harvesting, the longer the birch trees you harvest from will survive and you can continue to go back to them every few years to harvest more. The smart forager rotates where they harvest every year to give the trees a break and a chance to regrow their chaga sclerotium. It would be wise to have 5-10 different harvesting spots kept in rotation that are far away from populated areas. The careful foraging of chaga may even prolong the life of the birch tree being harvested from by slowing down the growth of the chaga fungus and therefore slowing down the tree's inevitable death.
How to Process Chaga
It's not fun, that's for sure! Chaga can be gigantic, unwieldy, and hard as wood or stone. I've found the safest way to process it is to do so as soon as you bring it home and it is still as fresh and soft as it's ever going to be. If you let it dry out before breaking it down, it will become as hard as a rock. Fresh, the black outer skin has the consistency of tree bark and the inner yellow-brown mass has the consistency of chocolate (if chocolate were made of dense cork). You want to keep both the outer black skin and the interior. Some people throw away the black crust, but it is the most medicinally potent part of the chaga growth! When fully dried, you might as well try to break down a log of dried, seasoned firewood into a powder - yikes!
Clean off any leaves, fir needles, debris, and spider webs out of any nooks and crannies. Break a huge chunk down into more manageable but still large pieces with your hatchet or chisel and then break those chunks down into even smaller ones using a good, clean pair of sharp garden shears over a clean stainless steel bowl. I do this while watching a movie or talking to a friend and taking frequent breaks to rest my hand from the repetitive cutting motion. It is best to dry the small (1 cm - ish) chunks before processing any further. Other folks will bypass this careful method and put the whole fresh chunk of chaga in a pillow case and then smash it with a sledgehammer... It's hard to keep things sterile and contained with this folk method, but it's definitely easier to accomplish for people with arthritic hands.
To dry chaga, the small chunks can be placed in a dehydrator on a low setting with no heat. Heat will damage the medicinal properties. It can also be air dried (if you have a herb drying rack) or placed in paper bags that you shake multiple times a day for at least 2 weeks. The pieces won't shrink, but will go from feeling heavy and moist to feeling dry and light.
Once your small chaga pieces are dry you can either store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark, and dry place or grind them into a powder for making medicines. Dried chaga can be harsh on a coffee or herb grinder, so the smaller your chunks are, the better it will work. I like to use a vintage hand-cranked metal meat grinder to break down my dried chaga chunks into a coarse grind suitable for making tea decoctions and alcohol extracts.
How to Properly Prepare Chaga Medicine
Chaga should never be ingested raw and unprocessed. Raw mushrooms contain chitin which the human body is unable to digest and the medicinal properties need to be extracted as our bodies cannot do it on their own. Ingesting unprocessed chaga will lead to gastrointestinal distress with no medicinal benefit to you. Beware of people and herbal companies selling raw chaga powder in capsule form! They are often not educated enough to know they are hurting and scamming you simultaneously.
Chaga "Tea" Decoction
Who should use a chaga decoction? Water does not extract all the medicinal compounds of chaga so it will not work for every health issue. A water decoction is best for those who want to use chaga tea to help treat arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, stomach and digestive issues and potentially high cholesterol and high blood sugar.
2-4 tbsps of ground chaga per 1 litre of water
The longer the amount of time chaga has to infuse, the more medicinally potent it becomes. Basic tea steeping is not enough, so a low temperature decoction must be made. Place your chaga and water in a stainless steel pot or a crock pot on low heat. It is important to never boil the water or the medicinal properties will be lost. So hot it almost boils, but doesn't bubble is perfect (around 180 F). Infuse until the water reduces by half and top up with more water until it reduces by half again. Due this 2-3 times. Once the last addition of water has reduced by half, strain out your chaga grinds.
The liquid is now ready to be drunk as is with cream and honey or used as a base for chai, hot cocoa, coffee, or into smoothies. The decoction can be stored in a canning jar in the fridge for a few weeks so you can make a big batch to drink all month before you need to repeat the process again. Brewers will make the decoction and add it to beer recipes instead of hops. I've seen the decoction used to make mead (honey wine) as well!
The leftover chaga grounds can be tossed into your compost or directly into your garden beds just like coffee grounds.
To get the full spectrum of medicinal benefits from chaga, a double extraction using water and alcohol is one of the best proven methods of processing chaga. Double extracted chaga powders created using steam and alcohol can be purchased from herbal suppliers, but cannot be reproduced at home as the equipment needed is incredibly expensive and large. These processed powders can be used as is without the need to make a decoction. A double extracted powder can be added to your morning coffee, your instant hot chocolate mix, your smoothies, your yogurt, raw chocolate truffle or bliss ball recipes, etc. If you want to buy chaga to take in capsule form, make sure the chaga powder the capsules contain is double extracted first!
You can make your own chaga double extraction at home, but it will not be a powder, it will be a liqueur - nothing wrong with that!
Who should use a double extract of chaga? People hoping to benefit from it's antiviral, antitumor, and immune-stimulating properties. The double extract isn't really meant to be used on a daily basis, but when it is needed. If being used as an antiviral or immune booster to treat cold and flu viruses, it should only be taken for 5-7 days before use is discontinued and the body allowed to finish healing on its own. If being used to inhibit tumor growth, it would be best to use it under the direction of a registered herbalist, naturopath, or doctor. That being said, medicinal turkey tail mushrooms have done better in cancer trials than chaga so far...
Chaga Liqueur Recipe
Fill a one gallon jar with ground chaga, fresh or dried, leaving only 3-4 inches of air space at the top of the jar to make space for the alcohol. Top up with alcohol with a minimum percentage of 40-60%. A good, strong brandy or bourbon makes a superior tasting extract compared to vodka or 100% grain alcohol. As the chaga absorbs the alcohol, you may need to top up the jar with even more booze. Seal with a good, tight lid.
Place the jar in a cool, dark place. Shake it every day if you can. It will need to be left to infuse for 2-3 months before you open the jar again. This is a lot longer of a stretch of time than for making herbal tinctures. The medicinal properties of mushrooms are very slow to extract -- the longer the better.
Strain out the alcohol in a jelly bag or seive lined with cheesecloth, measure the liquid you have, and place the liquid extract in a clean glass jar with an air tight lid. Don't throw out the chaga grounds! Put them in a large stock pot and add 2-3 litres of water. Repeat the decoction-making process from the recipe above until you've reduced and added water three times. Strain the decoction again with a jelly bag or seive lined with cheesecloth.
If you have more of the water decoction than the alcohol extract, put aside the excess water decoction and save it for other uses. I like to sweeten the decoction before blending it with the alcohol extract as chaga is very bitter. Honey or maple syrup pair very well with chaga as does dark brown sugar. Add 1-2 cups of sweetener per 1 litre of liquid. Heat in a clean stainless steel pot only until the sweetener is completely dissolved into the decoction. Cool this infusion and then blend it with the alcohol extraction you put aside.
You're now finished! Almost... before using, I recommend storing it in a large canning jar for 1-3 weeks and allow any remaining sediment to settle and the liqueur to fully clarify, then carefully pour off the liqueur from the sediment. Bottle it in fancy bottles or store it in a large canning jar. It doesn't need to be refrigerated. After blending, your double extract should be 20-30% alcohol. It is definitely medicine, but it is also delicious. Drink as is, blend half and half with cream, spike your coffee, or come up with cocktail recipes.
Chaga's Other Uses
Because of it's almost cork-like texture that makes it burn well, chaga has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples as tinder for starting fires or for mixing into smoking blends to make sure they burn evenly. It has also been used for divination, as incense, and as a folk remedy for treating arthritis with heat and smoke from burning chaga chunks applied near affected joints.
In my region, chaga is the closest natural equivalent we have to chocolate besides roasted purple avens root. It is dark and bitter, but not unpleasant. This makes chaga useful for cooking and flavouring alongside its medicinal properties. A chaga decoction can easily be turned into chaga syrup for ice cream, pancakes, hot drinks, and cocktails. I've made chaga infused maple syrup (tastes like chocolate molasses) and chaga infused honey. I've made chaga truffles, chaga fudge, and chaga ice cream. There are recipes out there for chaga brownies, chaga beer, and chaga mead/wine. It has potential for savoury meat marinades and sauces. Food is often medicine and the possibilities are only limited by your own creativity!
How to Purchase Sustainable Chaga
It doesn't matter what part of the world chaga comes from, it matters how it was harvested and how it was processed. Be wary of large wholesale herb and natural health supplement distributors who don't care where their chaga comes from and who haven't asked their suppliers the right questions. They will either say "I don't know" or outright lie to you. Now that you are armed with knowledge, you know the right questions to ask a forager or company who makes chaga products: when was the chaga harvested, how much of each growth is harvested, are the trees cut down to harvest, how is the chaga processed, how was it dried, is the chaga powder or capsules a double extraction, is the tincture full spectrum?
If a business is unable to answer your questions, gives you sketchy responses, or their website doesn't contain any information other than a buy it now button and ridiculous cure-all claims, move on and find another source of chaga. If you're buying chaga at a farmer's market and they stutter, pause, or sweat when faced with your questions, also move on. A good forager knows what they are doing and has been doing it for years. A good herbal company knows what they are doing in making their chaga products and why they are doing it a certain way. Look for confidence, knowledge, and experience from your source.
Written by forager & herbalist Sarah Lawless