Out of all the ingredients that consistently end up on my labels, I am by far asked most often about chaga. The notion that one can enhance their alcohol using mushrooms is, I suppose, somewhat counterintuitive; I think people picture mushroom gravy from a deli mixed with beer or something similar. But as it turns out, chaga adds a delightful layer of flavor, a beautiful darkening colorization, and plenty of nutritional reasons to include it.
I remember the first time I harvested chaga from the wild. I was spending the weekend with a friend, a quiet retreat in a cabin in the Maine woods. We spent the entire trip in to the cabin looking at every white birch we encountered, combing the surface of each tree for the blackened, charred-looking protrusions, the telltale signs of chaga growth. We saw no sign whatsoever of chaga on the hike in.
After searching for several days, we finally found some ripe chaga — on a birch tree not 10′ away from the corner of the cabin. The tree wasn’t doing particularly well; once chaga is blossoming the tree is doomed and will die within a few years. There was a ladder handy, and with a good knife the chaga came right off. It was a large tree, and we harvested enough to last each of our families several months. It’s no coincidence that my companion on this trip was a friend with whom I’d spent a lot of time brewing beers, before I discovered the benefits of mead.
Normally I decoct the chaga into a delicious tea, simmering it for several hours, most often in a crock pot, until I have a beautiful beverage that looks like coffee and tastes very clean, with a hint of maple and vanilla. I use chaga tea (sometimes with other herbs such as reishi) as a base for my elixirs, which I drink nearly every morning in the winter.
This same tea is the basis for many of my meads, particularly fruit meads using berries. Beginning with chaga tea rather than water has several benefits for the mead. First, you get all the nutrition and herbal benefits of the chaga. Second, the chaga adds a nice mellow layer of flavor that is subtle in the finished mead, but mellows things out nicely. Third, while the finished mead isn’t coffee-like in color like chaga tea, it does darken the final mead product noticeably and beautifully.
When I brew mead with chaga, it’s usually a 3-gallon batch. Therefore I will brew 2 gallons of chaga tea, adding about 2 fistfulls of chaga to 2 gallons of spring water, and decocting for 4-6 hours minimum. With this 2 gallons of tea, I follow my basic mead recipe, which is described in detail in my meadmaking eBook.
I have not yet experimented much with tincturing chaga, either done traditionally with vodka or another distilled alcohol, or in the mead during secondary fermentation. UPDATE: I have now done several double extractions with both chaga and reishi, my technique is detailed here.
In addition, I tested meads in the Mad Trad Trial, 2 of which used chaga, the other 2 did not. The color of the finished mead was every-so-slightly darker, but perhaps more importantly the 2 batches done with chaga cleared much more quickly than the 2 non-chaga batches. This preliminary empirical evidence suggests to me that there is something in the chage, perhaps electrolyte related, that causes the mead to clear more quickly.
All in all, chaga is probably my #1 favorite herb in my life, and I absolutely love what it does to my meads. I encourage you to experiment with it (or whatever your favorite herbs are) when you brew.