Included on our list of beverage entrepreneurs and trends to watch, ChugaChaga is an upcoming bottled tea drink, for around $4 to $5 a pop, that claims a smorgasbord of health benefits: Antioxidants, melanin, polysaccharides, and the ‘molecule of youth,’ superoxide dismutase.
“We [think] the early evangelists of chaga will be people currently drinking products like kombucha, chia seed beverages, and cold-pressed juices—millennial urbanites and foodies looking for functionality,” the founder of ChugaChaga, Luke Evans, told FoodNavigator-USA.
A native of Upstate New York, from a town not far from the Woodstock 1969 site called White Lake (“So it’s a really eclectic, artsy cultural environment around there”), Evans has always been familiar with the chaga mushroom, or Inonotus obliquus, a parasitic fungus that grows primarily on the birch tree. He never thought much of them—until he went on a hike with his former co-worker and mentor Juan Gomez, a head chef at a local restaurant.
They hiked roughly five miles away from their town and found plenty Chaga mushrooms growing on the birch trees. Gomez told Evans that a pound of the medicinal mushroom can sell for $80 on Ebay. “And the fact that we found 10 pounds of it on one tree in my backyard—I never knew about this superfood that grew around me.”
But it takes three hours to brew…
Chaga mushroom tea is commonly drank by several communities in Russia, where it is integral to the region’s folk medicine. It even appears prominently in the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature-winning novel Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The drink isn’t popular in North America; not yet, at least. Evans thinks it has much to do with how long it takes to brew chaga, whose cell wall structure is composed of chitin, a dense glucose derivative also found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans. “I realized there’s a huge paying point there, and that’s why it’s not really being consumed by people outside the holistic culture who would take three hours a day to brew tea,” Evans said.
For the record, there are plenty of chaga tea products on the market, but they come in traditional loose-leaf or teabag form. On ChugaChaga’s website, the founders explain that steeping a chaga tea bag for only a few minutes means consumers “end up throwing away valuable vitamins and minerals.” By brewing and bottling it, Evans says chaga tea can become more mainstream.
Marketing ‘fungus tea,’ learning from the best
In college –two of ChugaChaga’s founders, including Evans, are still completing their college educations at UAlbany—Evans’ home brewed chaga tea is a hit among his peers. To make the tea, whose flavor has been described as Mocha-like, Evans foraged for chaga mushrooms in the vicinity himself.
When the idea to bottle and sell the beverage to the mainstream came, Evans and his two friends and co-founders, Marc Iskandar and Adam Kaiser, realized that their current method of sourcing raw materials wasn’t sustainable.
Moreover, there are only a handful of studies to verify the health claims popularly attributed to chaga mushrooms. One study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology and an edition of Mycobiology found that there are signs Inonotus obliquus has a positive effect on the immune system.
However, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center says there have been no clinical trials conducted to assess the mushroom’s safety or efficacy for disease risk reduction, and the ingredient's GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status is not clear.
All set for a January launch
But Evans and his team continued their independent research on the tea. They compiled data from the Brunswick Laboratories’ research on chaga, which found a “a good indication of rich antioxidant content,” and sent their formulation to Cornell University’s Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship for testing and developing flavors (right now, the website lists original, peach, and zero sugar options). They also found a network of chaga suppliers foraging in Canada and Alaska.
Evans says he’s confident with what they’ve created so far for a January release, though some details such as their bottle design and their current co-packer may change. The product has been well-received and generated enthusiasm, proven by the team’s induction to the Food-X cohort of Fall 2015, a food business accelerator program based in New York which was named by Fast Company in the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Food.
“It has exposed us to a lot of innovators and thinkers in the food industry that have the same vision and mission of what they want to fix and improve in the food industry” Evans says about being in Food-X.