Hackers, Mason Jar and the Psychedelic Science of DIY Shrooms

The main purpose of these manuals was to know how to avoid contamination. Although fungi are often associated with dirt and rot, they require a sterile environment for growing. In nature, a single mushroom can drop between one and thirty billion spores per day, but in the face of countless microbial competitors and very diverse environments, very few of these spores actually germinate. When they do, they transform into individual threads of mycelium, which then explore their surroundings, mate, and form an entangled network. Eventually, they produce fruit bodies (mushrooms) and start the process all over again. But the grower only works with a tiny fraction of this living material, so the goal is to eliminate the chance involved. Instead of throwing trillions of spores, growers are ridding themselves of the competition: they sterilize a refined grow environment, then introduce the spores they want to grow. The problem is, microbial contaminants are everywhere – they live on our skin and eyelashes, nestle in the folds of our clothes, and float through the air on dust particles. Every interaction on the opened container may contaminate. One wrong move and the lot is bad.

Collectively, these practices are referred to as “sterile technique” – the bane and pride of any serious mushroom grower. Proper sterile technique can mean the difference between a pound of fresh mushrooms and jars full of green mold. Specialized tools can help, but they are usually expensive and cumbersome.

In the early 1990s, although the craft of culture was no longer a hidden knowledge, it was still a precarious and laborious process. The instinct to radically simplify methods sprouted among experimental minds. Like most people, Robert McPhearson, a middle-aged jazz musician, had mixed luck with the standard method of vaccination. So he tried to inject the spores as a liquid solution through small holes drilled in the mason jar lid that were sealed with duct tape. He also experimented with materials to better protect the substrate from airborne contaminants.When the time came to produce fruit, he simply transferred the now brick-shaped mycelial kernel into a larger mason jar (but a large glass bowl would do just as well). Whether by luck or intuition, his adjustments produced abundant fruitfulness.

And then came his biggest innovation: the sale of spore syringes by mail, along with instructions for his new technique. Possession of psilocybin is illegal, but the spores of Psilocybe cubensis don’t technically contain it, a small legal loophole through which a cottage industry of mail-order spore syringes has made its way and sprouted. Now the potential grower only needed the spore syringe, a mason jar, a few cooking utensils, and the ability to follow directions. McPhearson called the PF Tek method. (PF because he was called Psylocybe Fanaticus and Tek for “technical”.) Beginning in 1991, PF Tek found slow-burning success thanks to the ads on the back of Highlights. (“FAIL PROOF Psylocybe cubensis spore injection culture kits. A quarter of pure cultures guaranteed. Fruitable!”) As the internet has grown, instructions have found their way online and it is fast. become the new standard for growing cubensis.

Just as mushroom cultivation found new audiences, the rise of online forums began to transform the practice. In 1997, a 15-year-old named Ythan Bernstein built Shroomery.net during his summer vacation. The website was modeled on lycaeum.org and erowid.org, two pioneering online forums for resources on psychedelics. The sections have multiplied; many sub-threads are born. Before long, Shroomery had a kind rival in Mycotopia.net. Once a strange and lonely pastime, cultivators and mycology enthusiasts could now exchange stories and advice online. They formed a community of mycophilic comrades with their own slang and internal debates. They resolved their cultivation failures and gave feedback and advice. Today the site is a maze of layered conversations and a treasure trove of practical know-how. The tone is typical: a mix of cheesy zeal, tongue-in-cheek jokes, homemade animated gifs, brotherly competitiveness and mutual aid. The site has produced its own local masters: Hippie3, Roger Rabbit, Alan Rockefeller, to name a few. Collectively, these forums have generated some of the best home growing practices. The “airport cover”, a lo-tech modification of the Mason jar which was the first presented by Hippie3 in 2005, is one of the best known. This innovation, which uses Poly-Fil tuff and some RTV silicone rubber, was quickly adopted, modified and refined by users of Shroomery and Mycotopia and is now widely taught as a simple and reliable way to avoid contamination.

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