Tupper’s Birch Boys chaga tea business expanding

Garrett Kopp, the 19-year-old Tupper Laker behind the Birch Boys chaga tea company, holds a large 10-year-old lump of the unusual mushroom in his drying room where chaga is dehydrated before being ground into a powder. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Garrett Kopp is motivated by mushrooms.

The 19-year-old Tupper Laker has built a tea business around one specific fungi, chaga, and is now crowdfunding to bring his operation from a basement at 123 Park St. to all corners of the nation and the world.

Ever since he unknowingly took a sip of the smooth and mild mushroom-based tea at his grandmother’s house four years ago, he has introduced everyone he can to the soothing drink, known for its many confirmed and proposed health benefits.

Though he is still a teen in college, Kopp oversees five employees and sees his age and lack of formal business experience as an advantage, expanding his company’s market through unconventional means and developing plans for introducing a new industry to Tupper Lake. The business is moving out of its chaga-dust-coated basement at 123 Park St. to take over the storefront with a retail space and a sort of “chaga museum.”

Kopp’s grandmother learned about chaga on a foresting trip, teaching him about the fungi and enlisting his help in scaling her backyard trees to pick chunks of the black mushroom with striking orange innards.

Kopp had been an outdoorsman for a while, recording his hunting and trapping adventures on a YouTube channel since he was 14.

“I was just selling mushrooms; I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur,” Kopp said.

Quickly spreading their brew through their family and friends, Kopp recognized the demand for chaga. After selling his personally harvested grounds at North Country festivals, he decided to turn his obsession into the full-scale Birch Boys business in 2015.

Chaga spores take root in the cuts and openings of trees, parasitically soaking up the nutrients of the host and eventually bursting through the bark as it kills the tree. Kopp harvests from birch trees because they produce the most nutrient-rich chaga, and he now works with 29 local outdoorsmen who supply him with chunks large and small, leaving around 15 percent of each chunk on the tree in the interest of sustainability. Chaga grows back to its original size within a couple of years, and trimming prolongs the life of the birch tree.

Last year, in Kopp’s sophomore year at Clarkson University, he was allowed to take an internship with his own company and hit the road to find vendors willing to stock the tea. Putting 27,000 miles on his car in just a few months, Kopp found his way into 135 stores across six states, including 21 in the Kinney Drugs pharmacy chain. He didn’t have a presentation, charts or planned meetings; he would simply walk into a store, ask to talk with the manager and sell them on the idea using nothing but his sheer excitement about chaga.

Kopp doesn’t just drink chaga; he lives it. Whether he is introducing customers and vendors to it, grinding and packaging the mushroom or taking entrepreneurial classes to surround himself with the business ideas and connections he needs, Kopp’s mission is to spread knowledge of and access to the fungi as far as possible.

And there is good reason to. Chaga boasts the highest antioxidant value of any naturally occurring substance on earth with 1,104 “Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity” units. The second highest, acai berries, have 165 units.

Antioxidants are a measure of a food based on its ability to neutralize free radicals (molecules with unpaired electrons). These negatively charged molecules are always trying to react with something, slowing cell mobility and increasing the likelihood of cell mutations. Antioxidants neutralize these molecules, making them benign.

“We eat protein for our muscles and fiber for our digestive tract; chaga is food for your immune system,” Kopp said.

Though chaga is commonly used as a preventative measure, it also has a reputation for treating ailments including cancer. Chaga was used in Russia folk medicine for years as a cure for cancer, and recent studies from Korean research centers show possible cancer inhibiting and destroying properties when testing in mice.

Chaga contains a compound called betulin which has been shown to trigger “apoptosis” in cancer cells, a process where a cell self-destructs by breaking down its DNA and sending signals for the shrinking cell to be “vacuumed up” by other cells. A study by ChangWoo Lee, Jong Won Yun and Hee Sun Hwang at the Korean Daegu University concludes that chaga tea might inhibit the spread of colon cancer cells.

Kopp cannot advertise, talk about or even link to research on the cancer-fighting possibilities chaga poses on his website.

“If I imply that this can fight a disease, I’m no longer selling a tea; I’m selling a drug in the eyes of the FDA,” Kopp said.

Kopp said the U.S. food and Drug Administration has called him posing as a nonprofit using holistic medicine to treat children with cancer and tried to bait him into saying that chaga can cure cancer.

Kopp himself drinks six cups of chaga tea a day to avoid illness and get the energy and mental focus he said can transform someone from a relaxed Type B personality to a hyperproductive Type A personality. As he pours himself into making chaga a household name by producing promotional videos, assembling bagging machines and making the hour-long drive from his shop in Tupper Lake to college in Potsdam, he pours cups of chaga tea to stay healthy and alert.

Kopp puts so much effort into Birch Boys because he sees other companies starting to sell chaga. He plans to reduce his enrollment at Clarkson to focus on the business.

“If we want to become one of the pioneers, we need to do it fast because it’s happening.” Kopp said. “I can graduate at a slower pace, but I feel like this … I feel like I have to do now.”

Kopp currently is funding his expansion through Pieshell, a crowdfunding website specializing in food and beverage companies, with a $14,000 goal. There are three tiers to the project: creating a retail space, developing educational display cases for promotions in stores and attending conferences such as Expo East, where 25,000 people have the chance to network with large vendor chains like Wegmans or Trader Joe’s.

Though he has nationwide plans, Kopp is keeping the heart of the company in Tupper Lake, with plans to build a manufacturing space and offering to create an entrepreneurial scholarship at Tupper Lake High School if his Pieshell project exceeds its goal.

Birch Boy’s Pieshell campaign can be found at pieshell.com/projects/birch-boys-chaga.