One hot summer day, Garrett Kopp helped himself to a glass of what-he-thought-was iced tea from his grandmother’s refrigerator. It was tea, but not the type of tea he expected.
“My grandma came inside and laughed when she saw what I was drinking,” says Kopp. “She said it was mushroom tea.”
The two headed outside where his grandmother introduced him to chaga: a medicinal mushroom that grows on birch trees. The mushroom is actually parasitic; as it slowly kills the tree, it stores all of the beneficial nutrients and compounds, eventually creating a potent, earthy mass — chaga — that the health community has dubbed “the king of herbs.”
“Because of its life cycle, chaga has more antioxidants than any other naturally occurring substance found on earth,” says Kopp, who is majoring in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Clarkson University. “Blueberries are considered an antioxidant superfood; but chaga has 1,362 times more antioxidants than blueberries.”
Already an avid outdoorsman with a popular YouTube channel showcasing his "Survivor"-like pursuits, Kopp soon began documenting his chaga hunts, foraging for the charcoal-like growth on birch trees in his hometown of Tupper Lake. As a teen, Kopp established Birch Boys in 2015 and dabbled with selling the chaga tea at area farmers’ markets. He cleared $200 to $300 per weekend; however, the business didn’t really get going until Kopp had finished his first year at Clarkson University.
In the meantime, Kopp’s YouTube channel quickly gained a following. “I would go out into the woods and film myself finding wild edible plants, building shelters or making fires by rubbing sticks together,” says Kopp. “Part of my rationale for attending Clarkson was because of its motto: defy convention. I was already doing that.”
In fact, the popularity and uniqueness of his YouTube channel caused Erin Draper of the Reh Center to contact him about attending Clarkson University to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. His YouTube videos also brought recruiters from the History channel’s survival show "Alone" to his door, with an offer to have him as a contestant on the show. He made the cut and cleared his calendar, but, three weeks before he was set to fly to a remote island, the directors decided to drop him, leaving him to scramble.
“I didn't know what to do,” says Kopp, who now thinks that being dropped from the show was actually a positive. “Then I got this idea to take the chaga business off the back burner and restart it. I asked Clarkson if they'd let me go on a co-op, taking the same semester off and basically interning for my own startup company.”
Kopp pitched the idea to Erin Draper, who agreed to the plan and served as Kopp’s advisor. It was exactly the reboot Kopp — and Birch Boys — needed. “It ended up turning into the greatest opportunity of my life — taking that co-op and working for Birch Boys full-time.”
Kopp began honing his chaga production line. The sole founder of the company, Kopp now has four part-time employees and works with 22 outdoorsmen in Tupper Lake who collect chaga for him. He inspects each mushroom before purchase, dries them in a specially built dehumidifying chamber and grinds the final product into a fine powder using a five-horsepower grinding machine. From there, the product is either packaged as loose tea or into tea bags. Kopp also has a partnership with Sandy Maine at the The Adirondack Fragrance and Flavor Farm in nearby Parishville; Maine creates soaps, lotions and lip products under a private label, using Kopp’s chaga.
Thanks to Kopp’s dedication during the semester he spent interning for his own company, Birch Boys is thriving.
“We’re in 89 stores, including five Kinney Drugs (Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Potsdam and Canton), and pretty much every health food store in the region,” says Kopp. “We have plans to develop new products and get into new stores.”
While Kopp plans to continue with Birch Boys products, he has bigger ideas for the future, including the creation of a manufacturing facility that he hopes will act as a local entrepreneurship hub. “I want to be part of the push to revitalize the North Country. No matter what I’m doing after graduation, it will be involved with that. Right now, I see Birch Boys as a stepping stone to get me where I want to be.”