This may herald the end of the reign of kombucha: bottled chaga is now available in local stores and markets. The Long Island produced beverage is being made by residents Bridget LeRoy and Debbie Falborn under their label, Chaga Island.
But first, what is chaga? A mushroom that has purported anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties, chaga grows on birch trees in northern climates and resembles wood more than a spongy fungus. It doesn’t not contain tea or caffeine.
“The closest I’ve been able to find it is in upstate New York, like the Utica region,” says LeRoy, who is certified in advanced herbalism from the Herbal Academy of New England. “It grows plentifully in New England — I used to see it often when I lived in New Hampshire — in big, black knots on white trees, high up. I thought it was bug poop!”
Falborn, a registered nurse with a homecare business, has been using chaga in the form of tea for many years to combat illnesses in herself, family and clients. “It has successfully helped many immune disorders, psoriasis, diabetes, bacterial and viral infections, Lyme, some cancers, GI disorders and many others,” she says. “So Bridget and I were determined to share it.” LeRoy was convinced when her son’s mono was gone in a week and the doctor was “gobsmacked.”
Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s website states: “Chaga mushroom is found in Russia and has been used in folk medicine for various ailments across northern Europe. Laboratory and animal studies show that compounds in chaga can kill cancer cells selectively and stimulate the immune system.” No human trials have been conducted.
Traditionally chaga is consumed as a hot “decoction,” made by steeping the mushroom in simmering water. LeRoy and Falborn says boiling will destroy the mushroom’s healing properties. “[Island Chaga] is slow-brewed in large vats, never heated to boiling, which allows it to still maintain the “raw” designation,” says LeRoy. “It is hot-packed, so it has an extended shelf-life—say, six to nine months. This is such a new, out-of-the-box way of brewing a beverage that it took almost a year to get the FDA approval. (The developer has had to invent a special filter for full approval on production.)”
Like most mushroom foragers, says LeRoy, “chaga harvesters are notoriously private, since they mostly forage in forest areas, and protect their ‘stash’ at all costs.” The mushroom is hard to remove so most use a hatchet or an ax. An overzealous harvester can kill the tree, so the women make it a point to buy from those who harvest ethically and sustainably and know how to dry it properly; the mushroom is very dense and risks ending up musty. For the drink, Chaga Island works with a beverage bottler who directly sources the chaga from a harvester in Eastern Canada.
She adds: “A very little chaga goes a long way! A full pound would probably last a family for about a year’s worth of brew. So, we buy in small amounts, a few pounds at a time, from several different people that we found online and found to be ethical.”
For now Chaga Island comes in two “flavors” plain and sweetened with agave syrup. It’s hard to call them flavors because chaga has very little aroma or taste, just a slightly woodsy quality. The drink can be found at Sacred Gardens and the Mustard Seed Cafe in Center Moriches, and Cornucopia Natural Foods in Sayville.