A young chaga growing on a birch tree in Presque Isle's Mantle Lake Park. Credit: BDN file photo

Chaga, a wild mushroom that grows throughout the Northeast, has quickly gained popularity in recent years as news has spread about the mushroom’s potential health benefits.

In response, Maine entrepreneurs are heading into the woods to harvest this local resource and get creative, using it to concoct everything from anti-aging skin cream to rich-bodied brews.

“Our newest product is chaga maple tea bags,” said Joshua Guay, who owns and operates Chaga Mountain with his wife, Crystal Guay, in a small town in western Maine. “We partnered with a local maple syrup company here in Moose River.”

In addition to a variety of teas, Chaga Mountain sells tinctures, muscle rub, skin cream and lip balm, and they’re continuing to expand their product line with hair products, facial creams and eye serums. All of these items have one main ingredient: chaga.

“I can tell you for sure it’s only gaining in popularity,” said Joshua Guay. “We have a huge wholesale market that’s only increasing daily, and it’s small businesses, to your mom and pop co-op places, to people selling large amounts on Amazon.”

Chaga has even reached outside the realm of health foods and skin care products.

Last year, Lone Pine Brewing Company in Portland partnered with Westbrook-based North Spore Mushroom Company to developed a seasonally available Chaga Stout, a beer in which Maine-harvested chaga contributes “subtle vanilla and earthy spice to a complex roasted malt structure.”

When the brewery launched the Chaga Stout, they held an event at Local 188 in Portland, where they served foods highlighting a wide variety of local mushrooms.

“We really want to focus on the interplay of beer and food,” said Thomas Madden, co-founder of Lone Pine Brewing. “We’re tried to make that a priority since we started.”

The Chaga Stout is available for a limited time three or four times a year, and the brewery just finished bottling a new batch in early December. It’s now available at the brewery’s tasting room at 219 Anderson St. in Portland and a select few retail locations.

What’s so special about chaga?

Slowly growing on the trunks of birch trees, chaga looks more like a diseased growth than a mushroom. With a black, barklike exterior, chaga bulges from the tree, cracked and asymmetrical, and it’s so dense that it usually requires the use of metal tools to harvest.

It tastes a lot like it looks — bland, earthy and a little bitter. But its value is in its potential health benefits, not its flavor. Rich in antioxidants, chaga was used by the native people of the Northeast to create healing teas, and in folk medicine in other areas around the world where the mushroom grows, including Russia and Poland.

Nowadays, there’s as lot of information on the internet about the possible health benefits of chaga, which run the gamut from reducing joint pain to warding off cancer. Chaga tea and tinctures were historically used to treat a wide range of health issues, including digestive problems, muscle and joint pain and fatigue. The list goes on and on.

But scientific studies about how the contents in chaga specifically affect a person’s body are few, and many are inconclusive. A recent study inspected the actual chemical composition of chaga, which includes certain acids that individually have been studied for their potential to prevent and treat cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

For the most part, information about the potential health benefits of chaga is anecdotal, stemming from stories that people tell of their own personal experiences consuming the mushroom over prolonged periods of time, namely through tea, extracts and skin products.

“We talk to a lot of people on the phone, and it’s amazing the stories you hear, and unfortunately, we’re not permitted to publish those because of the FDA regulations,” said Joshua Guay. “But the testimonies of what chaga does for people is mind-blowing, it really is. Everyone takes it for different reasons. Just when you think you’ve heard all the reasons people take it, you hear another one.”

Giving it a try

About five years ago, Joshua Guay was living with his family in southern Maine, where he was working as a police officer. Meanwhile, his father, Rene Guay had established a quickly growing business, Chaga Mountain.

“I was working a lot of hours and I got pretty sick with just flu symptoms,” Joshua Guay said. “My father had been running the [chaga] business for a couple of years by that time, and I was on the phone with him, and he was trying to get me to drink chaga. It wasn’t that I didn’t buy into it, but I was always on the go. So he sent me a bunch of different things, teas and extracts, and I started taking it … Since then, I haven’t been sick to the point I had to miss any work or by in bed. It’s amazing.”

He now drinks chaga tea every day. And about a year ago, his family moved into the woods of western Maine, where they were handed the reins of his father’s chaga business.

“It’s my personal experience with it that really sold me on it,” Joshua Guay said. “It’s a valuable natural product we have access to, and people are still learning about it every day.”

The owner of My Berry Organics, Rebecca Webster of Farmington, has a similar story. She was introduced to chaga by her daughter in 2013. At the time, she was searching for natural products that might help prevent skin cancer, after twice being diagnosed with it.

After conducting some research about the mushroom and learning it was filled with antioxidants, she got to work developing a recipe that included both chaga and wild blueberries, another antioxidant-rich food.

“As I was in the early stages of formulating our products, I developed my third skin cancer,” Webster wrote on the My Berry Organics website. “I was fortunate that our first sample was ready and that I was able to apply it twice daily to the new incision on my face. What I had not expected was that my scar disappeared! My other two old incision scars were red and white, bumpy, and very apparent. But, this new incision healed clean and completely.”

What’s more, she has had another cancer diagnosis since 2013.

“I can’t say publicly that it’s going to cure a disease or treat a disease,” Webster said. “I’m always careful to say you’re supporting your immune system.”

But she can tell her story. She can share her beliefs. And she’s happily expanding her line of chaga-based products. Her newest is a face mask made of Maine chaga and clay, and she’s currently working on a chaga-caffeine under-eye gel.

“I see it as just finding creative ways to use it and all of its nutrients in different forms,” Webster said. “I have a passion for it because chaga is just so helpful to so many people.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...