Chaga may not look like much -- it's a lumpy, charcoal-colored bulb protruding from birch trees -- but this fungus is trending.
A cottage industry surrounding chaga is growing in Alaska. Numerous health claims are bolstering chaga businesses as demand grows both in and out of state.
It's the newest offering in the Talkeetna-based Kahiltna Birchworks lineup of products.
Owners and self-proclaimed "tree-people" Dulce Ben-East and Michael East, who have made their livelihoods from selling birch syrup, said they often see the fungus as they traverse across their homestead.
They started harvesting it about five years ago on their Southcentral homestead, going out on their snowmachine in search of the fungus. It grows on maybe one in 20 trees, East said, and is easier to spot in the wintertime. Once they find it, they'll take a hammer and chisel and "just kind of pop it off," East said.
After watching a surge in interest in the fungus, the couple finally decided to start harvesting it commercially.
They began selling chaga products in July, offering it at the Alaska State Fair and craft shows.
"It really sold," Ben-East said. "People were really fascinated and happy that we had it."
Teas, tinctures and candies
Chaga, or Inonotus obliquus, is a common fungus in Alaska, said Gary Laursen, a mycologist and senior research scientist at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology.
The bracket fungus grows on birches and quaking aspens, establishing itself in the inner wood of the tree and taking in water and nutrients through the trunk.
"It seems to be very happy living there," Laursen said.
Chaga can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in boreal forests.
While many reports say the fungus is parasitic and slowly kills the tree, Laursen disagreed. Chaga doesn't kill the tree host, Laursen said, but may weaken it by hollowing out the trunk.
The harvested portion -- the part the Easts pry off with their hatchets -- is the fungus' fruit body, which produces the chaga's spores. The outer crust of the chaga is the lumpy, charcoal-colored part visible on birch trees. Inside, it's light brown.
Most people ingest chaga by making tea out of the inner brown part, which is more palatable. The tea has a mild, slightly earthy taste.
Trying chaga tea for the first time at Boheme Coffee Lounge in Anchorage, couple Keith Mceldowney and Ronetta McConnell said it tasted "comfort-y," "subtle" and "generic."
"It's good," Mceldowney concluded.
Every business has its own method for preparing chaga tea. Chaga Monkey owner Vena Hamilton said she brings a quart of water to boil in a 2-quart sauce pan, throws in a "handful of chunks" and lets it simmer for at least 20 minutes. If it's too strong, she adds water.
"I use it like coffee or tea. You can put honey and cream in it," Hamilton said. Sometimes, she uses it in soup stock.
Tinctures -- a concentrated extract -- are another common way to ingest chaga. They are generally made from the less-palatable black outer layer.
One new business is now also making candy. Bare Roots Herbal Products opened its doors in July. Owners Dawn Peters-Thayer and husband Darren Thayer quit their jobs at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna last year to focus on their chaga business and herbalism.
Peters-Thayer makes tea and tinctures from chaga as well as three types of candy and skin-care products. Business is steadily increasing, she said.
The next big thing
Chaga prices vary slightly depending on business. Four ounces of Kahiltna Birchworks chaga costs $16. Two ounces of extract costs $18.
One piece or tea bag of chaga can be reused up to four times.
To sell chaga as a tea, tincture or in other processed forms, businesses must receive a permit through the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
The state is "absolutely" seeing an uptick in applications, said Jeremy Ayers, section manager at the DEC's division of food safety and sanitation program.
"We went from seeing probably not any … to five or six" applications by the end of 2014, Ayers said. He added most applications are coming from "mom and pop" businesses new to the food processing industry.
There are at least 10 chaga businesses in Alaska today. Of these, seven started in the past year, according to interviews and state of Alaska business license registration.
While businesses began to multiply recently, they aren't completely new. Dennard Hegna, owner of Arctic Chaga in Fairbanks, has been selling the fungus for a few years.
Hegna said he has more than six tons of chaga stockpiled in his Fairbanks warehouse and recently bought a dehydrator that can dry out 1,500 pounds of chaga at a time.
For his day job, Hegna manages a welding company. But his chaga business continues to flourish, Hegna said. "We've been shipping it to California, Japan, Australia, Mexico … (and) just about every state."
Chaga is "the next big thing," he said.
Possibly Alaska's newest chaga business, Graeme Deishl's Alaska Natural Chaga, has been in business since January
Deishl is selling and marketing Hegna's products in Southcentral Alaska. In the first six weeks, Deishl's business Alaska Natural Chaga has grossed more than $4,000 in sales, and has convinced several businesses to stock Arctic Chaga.
"Things are just exploding," he said. "It's trending, which makes it exciting."
As the Thayers did, Deishl quit his other job for his chaga business. He said he wanted to be a part of an industry that's uniquely Alaskan.
"There are so few things that Alaska has for staple industries … But this is one of them," Deishl said.
What does it do?
The Internet is awash with claims regarding chaga's health benefits. A quick Google search produces countless results of its purported benefits: anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-HIV.
Businesses are quick to state that they do not make health claims about their products. Sorting out the truth from fiction online can be a dizzying endeavor.
For instance, an oft-quoted Tufts University study citing chaga's high-antioxidant levels is bunk, Hegna said. Tufts conducted no such study.
However, studies have shown that chaga has "strong antioxidant effects."
According to Brunswick Labs, a leading laboratory testing antioxidants, Hegna's chaga has slightly more antioxidants per gram than freeze-dried raspberries and fewer than freeze-dried blueberries.
Businesses swear by their product, and are also quick to offer anecdotal stories of the health benefits of chaga -- from curing rheumatoid arthritis to assisting in weight loss.
In Russia, chaga has a long history, where it has been used traditionally for stomach ailments, has been smoked to help bronchial problems, and in soap water for cleaning skin.
Chaga has also been used by Alaska Natives for thousands of years, naturopathic doctor Gary Ferguson said. Ferguson is featured in the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's Store Outside Your Door episode where Kenaitze tribal leader Jon Ross prepares chaga.
Most research regarding chaga has been conducted outside of the U.S., Ferguson said, pointing to research on anti-cancer properties and research regarding anti-tumor properties. Some studies purport to demonstrate anti-inflammatory effects, immune-stimulation, and antiviral effects, among others.
"Some claims have better evidence than others … and there's still a lot of research to be done," Ferguson said.
Ferguson pointed to its long history as a medicinal fungus as evidence of its healing properties.
"Traditional healers were here before western medicine," Ferguson said. "The power of that indigenous science is something I have a huge respect for."
As a naturopathic doctor, Ferguson said he recommends chaga to "folks who need to improve their immune system," or who need an energy boost.
Mycologist Laursen expressed skepticism regarding chaga's supposed health benefits.
There's a lot of anecdotal evidence, but "very little research has been done," Laursen said.
Many wood-borne fungi have been shown to demonstrate medicinal properties, Laursen said. However, unlike other wood fungi such as turkey tail or cordyceps, chaga hasn't yet been extensively studied.
What chaga does have is a lot of amino acids, Laursen said. Since people need to consume amino acids daily for good health, "that's probably where people are developing a sense of value," surrounding the tea, he said.
Laursen said he did not know of any negative health effects of taking chaga. If using prescription medication, Ferguson recommended consulting a physician before taking chaga.
Anyone can harvest a "reasonable amount" of chaga on state lands for personal use without a permit, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Businesses all echoed common concerns of overharvesting and poor harvesting techniques.
Once harvested, chaga takes about five years to grow back, Ben-East said.
And it must be harvested with care. "You don't want to dig into the tree itself, you just want to pop the conch off," East said.
Chaga extends deep into the tree, but harvesting that portion will harm the birch. "There's the greed factor you have to watch," East said.
The fact that chaga is wild-harvested -- requiring people to track it down -- may in some ways hinder the industry from growing beyond its mom-and-pop beginnings, Deishl said. But that might help existing businesses if it prevents overharvesting, and a deluge of product on the market that would lower prices.
Regardless, business owners hope chaga will continue to permeate the mainstream for years to come.
"I'm hoping it's not a trend. I'm hoping this is going to be out there and people are going to stick with it," Peters-Thayer said.