Photo by Erol Ahmed
Too dependent on coffee? Try using chaga mushroom tea instead.
I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art. -Madonna Ciccone
Though my husband and I can be polar opposites in many ways, one thing we’ve had in common since the early stages of our relationship is a fascination with self experimentation. We’re both naturally curious people who like to learn about the world and ourselves, so seeing what works in the name of self improvement is pretty common around our household. From diets to exercise regimes, or from productivity systems to natural supplements: it’s all been fair game to us. These short-term experiments have helped us learn if it’s possible for him to eat nothing but meat for an entire month (it is), whether or not I’d feel better if I cut out dairy (a total bummer), and whether he could run marathon without logging more than 6 miles during training (he can; it’s not fair).
One of the more recent challenges I’ve given myself is drinking less coffee because I found out that the same gene that makes me a Worrier also means that I process caffeine more slowly which disrupts my sleep. I came across chaga mushroom tea when I was researching alternatives to starting my mornings by drinking half a French press, so naturally I wanted to learn more.
A Fire-Starting Fungus
First things first: finding out what chaga actually is because I’d never seen this mushroom in my local grocery store or read that much about it. Turns out that it’s a crumbly black sclerotium with brownish-yellow insides that typically grows and thrives on birch trees in colder climates, like Siberia and northern Europe and the northeastern United States, which is likely why my city-dwelling self had never come across it before. It resembles burnt charcoal, and you can apparently start a fire easily with it, which sounds handy but wasn’t quite the reason I was seeking it out.
Since I was more curious about its other purported properties for health, wellness, and weaning myself off of coffee, I kept researching. I learned that like many other mushrooms, chaga is reportedly a powerhouse of nutrients and antioxidants which can help your gut health and reduce inflammation in your body. This is frequently why it’s marketed as a good alternative to coffee: if it helps regulate your energy levels better, then you might not need your venti latte.
Chaga has been commonly used for treating stomach ailments like gastritis over the centuries. However, while there are loads of other claims to curative properties (cancer, diabetes, psoriasis, tuberculosis), there are not enough clinical studies on its effectiveness or risks. As always, it’s important to do your own research and check with your doctor to see if it’s right for you.
How to Make Chaga Tea
To get the benefits of chaga, you can basically make it into a tea by pouring hot water over big hunks of it or by using a smaller grind to use in a infuser. The latter form is the fastest and easiest way to make it because you only have to steep it for 4-6 minutes, but the advantages of having big chunks of chaga are that you can be more sure of their freshness. You can also use the same pieces over and over again, especially if you keep them in your freezer between uses. Once they’re not usable anymore, you can toss them...or keep them to start a fire.
As with many teas, you don’t want to pour the hottest level of boiling water on it because it can destroy some of those beneficial properties mentioned earlier. Since the ideal temperature is closer to 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit, I tend to use my electric kettle for efficiency’s sake. If you’re using bigger pieces of chaga, I’d recommend buying pre-cut pieces or breaking them into 1-inch cubes so that you can simmer them in about 1 liter of water for one to four hours. Alternatively, you can always use your crockpot as well. Then, after you’re done simmering it, you’ll need to strain any solids out using a tea towel, mesh strainer, or cheese cloth to enjoy your chaga tea.
Photo by fotografierende
Even though the chaga turned out to be a pretty dark brew when it’s finished, the flavor wasn’t actually as bitter as I originally expected. It just ended tasting more earthy, which I didn’t mind. If you don’t enjoy the flavor, you can sweeten your chaga with honey or milk, but since I think it tastes a little like vanilla (and I’m used to drinking my coffee black), it was fine by me.
Much like coffee, you can take your batch of hot chaga tea and cool it to drink at room temperature--I like to keep it in mason jars at my office to prevent me from heading to 7-Eleven-- or you can even turn it into ice cubes if that’s more your style. You’re going to want to use up your brewed chaga within 4 days so that it doesn’t lose its potency, and you can drink it up to three times per day.
Even though it’s more of a time consuming process to make chaga tea from the larger chunks of it that I bought, this is my preferred method overall. I like the fact that I don’t end up feeling as wound up and jittery as I normally do with coffee, and it feels like a slightly brighter energy than coffee, if that makes any sense. While I don’t think chaga will erase or replace my love of coffee completely, I really enjoy the type of energy I get from it and will continue to use it over time as I cycle on and off coffee.
Have you used chaga before? What do you think?