Aroostook mushrooms harvested for Houlton tea shop brew

6 months ago

HOULTON, Maine – With 30 pounds of locally harvested chaga, Randi Farrar began the tedious task of scrubbing and cleaning the somewhat ugly mushroom conks before bathing them in Himalayan salt and mother’s vinegar in preparation for her latest tea brew.

Farrar, who co-owns Lotus & Leaf, a downtown Houlton tea shop, with her husband Tom Farrar, just kicked off a new line of chaga brews with Birch Bark Brews partner, Alyssa Hutchinson.

“The way it’s going, it’s starting to explode,” said Tom Farrar, about the mushroom’s local popularity.

Chaga mushroom, an ancient northern European folk remedy, is commonly found on birch trees in cold climates. And its use as a botanical tea has been gaining modern day notoriety as a healing mushroom, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

HOULTON, Maine — Dec. 12, 2023 — Randi and Tom Farrar own a new downtown Houlton tea shop, Lotus & Leaf. They offer healing botanicals and a new line of chaga brews. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

And in multiple clinical and preclinical studies, researchers said that chaga has shown promise for helping reduce inflammation, diabetes prevention and its cancer killing properties, according to an article in the November issue of Current Research in Toxicology. 

Tom Farrar tells the story of a cousin who has been drinking chaga since he can remember. 

“He’s 67 years old and just built his own log home by himself,” Tom said. “He doesn’t have an ache or a pain. The chaga is great for inflammation, joints.”

Initially, the tea shop, which opened earlier this year, only sold the self-harvested mushroom in its original conk or chunk form, but when brewing it for tea, it must steep for 45 minutes. The chunk form is under $5 and lasts about a month because it can be rebrewed, said Randi Farrar. 

To speed it up for customers, they decided to crush some of it into a powder and put it in a tea bag with a five minute steep time, Tom Farrar said.

The chago grows in the deciduous forest and it takes hours and hours to prepare the chaga for brewing.

It is first harvested from live birch trees in late fall and winter while the tree is dormant. 

The chaga forms on a tree wound and over time the mushroom, almost like a band-aid on the tree grows outward. It is bumpy and ugly. And it can be removed with a saw or an ax, they said.

HOULTON, Maine — Dec. 12, 2023 — Randi and Tom Farrar own a new downtown Houlton tea shop, Lotus & Leaf. They offer healing botanicals and a new line of chaga brews. (Credit: Lotus & Leaf)

Still, Tom said that a lot of people take all of the chaga and then it will not grow back. But if you leave some of it still on the tree it scabs back over and will eventually regrow, he said. 

Birch Bark Brew partner Hutchinson and her fiance, TJ Farrar, Tom and Randi’s oldest son, harvested the bulk of the 30 pounds of chaga from local birch bark trees last winter. 

Once harvested, Randi rinses the chaga with lukewarm water and scrubs it with a  brush before bathing it in Himalayan salt and mother’s vinegar to kill any bacteria, followed by another rinse and drying time. .

They prepackaged The Birchbark Brews with enough for at least two cups that sells for about $7.99. The brews are in pretty layers with the darker fine ground chaga, and golden honey granules, topped with dried berries and flowers. One of the brews is a strawberry, hibiscus, cranberry mix and topped with sliced red dried strawberries, they dried. 

Randi said she had been thinking of adding things like herbs and dried fruits to their teas to make them prettier, but instead they are using the idea for the chaga brews. The most popular right now is the lemon ginger chaga brew. 

“We can’t keep it stocked in the shop,” they said. 

When Randi first opened, it was her intention to open a yoga studio and add some teas, but decided instead to offer healthy teas and related items like local honeys, syrups, essential oils, teapots and mugs. 

In addition to the chaga, there is an extensive selection of loose botanical teas from eucalyptus to hibiscus to tulsi licorice root. Randi gets most of her teas from Star West Botanicals, she said. 

“They do a lot of organic things,” she said. 

They opened in May, but only had limited hours because Randi had to take care of their children after school. But now, daughter Padme Hardy is working in the shop until 5 p.m. to keep it open longer.

“At first it was slow but quite honestly it has picked up so much I feel very confident,” Randi said. “I think people are realizing that health is important and it has been neglected for so long.”