One hot summer day four years ago, I helped myself to a glass of what-I-thought was iced tea in my grandmother’s refrigerator. I had just finished mowing her lawn, and I was desperately craving something to drink. When my Grandma came in and saw what I was drinking, her jaw dropped. She laughed, and told me I was drinking a mushroom!
(A glass of iced chaga tea)
Hearing that evoked some unsettling thoughts… Why does my Grandma have an unlabeled jug of mushroom tea in her refrigerator? Am I going to start seeing crazy hallucinations? Who picked this mushroom and is it safe? Is my Grandma losing her marbles? The scenarios were racing through my puzzled mind.
I was skeptical, but I was undoubtedly intrigued. Before I could even collect my thoughts enough to ask questions, she started teaching me about her newfound obsession with chaga mushroom. She explained that she had recently gone on a foraging trip, and learned about chaga from her guide. The guide showed a specimen of chaga growing on a birch tree, and explained its extensive medicinal benefits and indigenous history. After the trip, my grandma found it growing on a birch tree right in her backyard! Her fanatical enthusiasm drew me in, and before I knew it, we were trekking out back across the freshly cut grass toward her proud find.
As we approached the mushroom, I was startled to see that on the outside, it looked like an earthy mass of black charcoal. It certainly didn’t look like anything I’d want to ingest. She carefully removed a piece from the tree and showed it to me. The inside of the mushroom had a bright, almost fluorescent orange color. The vibrant orange paired against the jet-black outer shell of the mushroom created a beautiful contrast, almost as if it was designed to draw your attention. She taught me- by brewing a piece of chaga in hot water, its bio-active components become bio-available. I was sold, and we went back inside to help ourselves to another cup of the tea.
(Chaga mushroom's surface)
That marked the beginning of our chaga hunting adventures. We made a great team. I was a spry 15 year old... I could effortlessly scale up trees to pick the chaga, and she had a vehicle and knowledge of the best spots to go looking for it! We’d take afternoons and drive down old dirt roads in areas of the Adirondacks looking for chaga. At one point, we had so much that we converted her dining room into a chaga drying area. We covered the table with drying racks filled with at least 30 pounds of chaga, and pointed fans on it from every direction. We would share it with family and friends, but it didn’t take long before we had collected more chaga than we knew what to do with.
(My Grandmother, Sally Kopp, at the Adirondack Museum in 2014)
My Grandma used to spin wool; she’d knit scarves and mittens, and take them to little craft fairs and Adirondack Festivals. She encouraged me to come with her to a festival at the Adirondack Museum to try selling chaga chunks. I packed up a scale, a poster board and marker, and as much chaga as I could carry. In about 4 hours, I had made $299 and sold out of all the chaga I brought with me. As a 15 year old, I felt rich! Where else could someone my age make that kind of money? So I started calling local farmers markets and fairs to reserve booth space to sell chaga. I made business cards, registered my first DBA for the company name Birch Boys, and dropped my summer lawn-mowing gig to become a chaga salesman.
(Me at one of my first craft fairs selling chaga in 2014)
I never would have anticipated the overwhelming amount of feedback, support, and email testimonials I received after those vendor events. There were people who claimed the chaga was giving them more energy, clearing up their skin, and even alleviating chronic pain associated with ailments such as arthritis. I realized that not only did I have an opportunity to make money, I had a tremendous opportunity to help people. That realization inspired me, and kick-started the motivation to start my business. I want everybody to have the opportunity to try chaga mushroom and experience its medicinal benefits. From day one, my mission has always been to make chaga a household name.
I don’t really know how to describe why, but there is something so captivating about this mushroom. When you start drinking chaga, you tell your friends and family about it. You didn’t just start drinking a new green tea or a different flavor of chai… You started drinking CHAGA, and for whatever reason, that’s a big deal. Don’t get me wrong… There are many legitimate and proven facts about why chaga’s a big deal, but there is an underlying aura of fanaticism revolving around chaga and its drinkers. If you are one of them, you know exactly what I mean. It is that underlying factor of erratic enthusiasm that possessed the foraging guide when he taught my Grandma about chaga, and what possessed her when she taught me. With Birch Boys, I strive to pass that on to everyone who is open minded enough to
The experiences and relationships I have built resulting from this journey have been more incredible than any weird kid-trying-to-sell mushrooms could have ever dreamed of. And as much as I wish I could thank my Grandma, if she could see what Birch Boys has become, I know she’d be incredibly proud.