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Article from the June 2005 Onion Skin!

Sustainable Simplicity: Green Mountain Mycosystems
By Erin Williams, Publications Coordinator

Published in the Onion Skin, June 2005

      Despite its cheerful packaging, VTea risks blending in with the other bottled teas crowding the beverage cooler. A quick glance at the ingredient list of these cranberry and lemon flavored beverages reveals what makes them truly unique: reishi mushrooms, sustainably wild-crafted in Vermont by Green Mountain Mycosystems.
       It's a product that begs the question - why mushrooms? They aren’'t exactly the first thing that springs to the mind of your average thirsty consumer, but Green Mountain Mycosystems are brewing tea for reasons beyond satisfying popular taste: Making the health benefits of reishi mushrooms easily accessible to consumers is a top priority for the drinks' creators, as well as the challenge of doing it all in a sustainable manner.
       Green Mountain Mycosystems, LLC was founded by David Demarest, whose experience working at the Intervale Foundation cultivating oyster mushrooms led him to seek methods of mushroom production that required less resources and energy and had a limited environmental impact. He was joined by Pete Dombrowski, who picked up his extensive microbiological lab skills at the University of Pennsylvania, and later by Jason Pappas, whose studies of native medicinal plants and mushrooms throughout the region had led him to seek a certificate for indoor and outdoor mushroom cultivation from renowned mycologist Paul Stamets.
       The reishi mushroom (Ganoderma tsugae) extract found in each VTea bottle has a history of healing. Reishis have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for 2,000 years as an immune booster and to detoxify and promote healthy liver function. David can personally attest to the health benefits of these mushrooms. By consuming large doses of reishis found on his property he was able to eliminate the antibiotics he was taking for Lyme disease, and is now symptom free.
       Reishis may be common to Vermont's wooded areas, but making the most of them is a time-consuming process: the mushrooms must be cooked for two hours to extract their benefits. Green Mountain Mycosystems’ innovation to blend reishi tea with delicious ingredients makes enjoying the mushrooms as simple as opening the cooler door. “"We're dedicated to making reishi accessible and convenient,” says Jason. In addition to VTea, Green Mountain Mycosystems also makes a reishi extract, available in one-ounce tinctures.
       David, Jason and Pete developed the recipes for VTea to be compatible with their belief in sustainability. All the ingredients are from local sources, with the only exception being the organic lemon juice used to flavor one tea. It's a practice that supports the local economy and reduces the amount of fossil fuels and emissions that result from trucking ingredients from afar. “"There are three Vermont farms in every bottle,"” says Jason. VTea's cranberries come from Vermont Cranberry Company in Fletcher, Vermont, and all it takes is a stop at the Walker family farm down the road for the organic maple syrup. 
      "We want to focus on keeping it simple,"” says Jason. “"We choose acidic juices to avoid adding citric acid, yet [the tea] has a rich, complex flavor.” The result is a refreshingly earthy drink.
       For Green Mountain Mycosystems, keeping it simple informs every aspect of production. “"A big focus is sustainable energy production and independence from fossil fuels,"” says Jason. “"Our lab is run on a solar-electric system and one of our farm trucks is biodiesel.”       
       The process begins on David's 51-acres in Underhill, where the conks (mushrooms) are wild-crafted (a harvest of plant material from its native environment). A couple of conks are always carefully left untouched so spores will continue to be released back into the woods. These wild-collected mushrooms are eventually used to brew the tea, and their spores are used for log-cultivation.
       The spores are grown in petri dishes in Green Mountain Mycosystems' sterile lab, then transferred to bags of grain. When mycelium begins to grow, it is transferred to ordinary furniture dowels. Fully colonized dowels are hammered into hemlock logs with holes drilled through them. The logs are sealed with wax and carefully stacked throughout two acres of woods where they are kept damp throughout the summer months. After one to two yearsof resting under the forest canopy, mushrooms will begin to fruit. Jason and David will be able to harvest from the same logs for five or six years until they eventually break down - a process free of by-products!
       Harvested, dried mushrooms are taken to the Food Venture Center in Fairfax, Vermont, where VTea is currently brewed and bottled. The Center is a USDA-inspected, non-profit kitchen that small Vermont businesses can rent by the hour, giving them the resources to make a product without the overhead of running their own kitchen. There the process starts with a mushroom extraction. According to Jason, “"The mushrooms are brewed for two hours in filtered water. When it's done we add maple syrup, then the cranberry or lemon juice. It's that simple.”
       Green Mountain Mycosystems is already feeling growing pains. The Food Venture Center has been an invaluable resource for the young company, but it is not a bottling plant. Two people have to spend 20 hours to produce 600 bottles of tea. “"The ideal goal is a Vermont bottling plant, possibly collaborating with a dairy and being energy-efficient,” says Jason.
       VTea was officially launched at the NOFA conference held in Massachusetts last August. Back in Vermont, Green Mountain Mycosytems took their grassroots marketing door to door - to local co-ops, health food stores and restaurants, as well as a maintaining a regular spot at the Burlington Farmers' Market, setting up demos wherever they could. The challenge is overcoming hesitations to taste such an unusual product. “"The hardest part is getting people to try it. We have to put it right in front of them. Once they try it they either like it or don't. It's definitely different,"” admits Jason.
       But their persistence has turned skeptics into believers: “"Every week at the Farmers' Market people come back and say ‘'[The tea] is really helping me out.' And that's ideal when people tell us they swear by our tea because they didn't get sick all winter. It makes me feel great about what I'm doing,"” says Jason.
       The bottles sitting on the cooler shelf are deceptively simple. Hard work, thoughtfulness and care go into every one. Says Jason, "We're investing in our community and neighbors. People in turn have
invested in us. It's been really rewarding for us.”
While Green Mountain Mycosystems strives to make the smallest environmental impact, their product is certainly one that impacts those who try it. VTea and reishi extracts are available at City Market, and you can also catch Green Mountain Mycosystems each Saturday at the Burlington Farmers' Market, where Jason and David are happy to talk to curious customers. “"It's a product I really believe in and am proud to be associated with,"” says Jason. “"It's the healthiest tea on the shelf: it's a really natural, healthy drink.”"