Great artisan salts are made across the world—but not much in the United States. From the mucky shores of Netarts Bay, Ben Jacobsen wants to change that.
Ben Jacobsen sits atop a gleaming, 6,000-gallon food-grade tanker truck, straddling the curving metal like Major Kong riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. The fire hose slung over his shoulder shudders as it belches hundreds of gallons of saltwater into the cavern beneath him.
Jacobsen wears his wiry strawberry blond hair tucked under a denim cap shadowing slate gray eyes and a mischievous, freckle-spattered grin hidden beneath his scruff. His truck sports its name—“Night Moves,” after the 1976 Bob Seger hit—in yellow script atop the shamrock green door. This pairing hardly seems like a partnership for delivering a gourmet condiment to some of America’s greatest chefs. But an hour later, Jacobsen shuts the valve, hops into his van, and, tailed by Night Moves, chugs to an equally unlikely third partner: an old oyster farm on the edge of Netarts Bay, its weathered hull littered with bivalve shells and blanketed in thick moss.
Today is Jacobsen’s first day working at his new salt factory. Four months before, he harvested a holding tank full of ocean when the summer sun leaves the water at its most salinated. Here at the oyster farm, he will filter, boil, and dehydrate it until all that’s left are the flaky crystals regarded by many a chef and foodie as America’s first great finishing salt.
April Bloomfield uses Jacobsen Salt at her Michelin-rated New York restaurant the Spotted Pig. So does Chris Cosentino, at his celebrated Incanto in San Francisco. The salt is a proudly listed ingredient for award-winning chocolatier Xocolatl de David. A four-ounce bag of these crystals sells in gourmet shops and more discerning supermarkets for $10.
Nine years ago, Jacobsen was happily spicing his food with bland granules of Morton. Now, at 37, he is a gourmet entrepreneur determined to become the best, biggest, and most famous artisan salt producer in the United States. The tank of ocean water, the old oyster farm, and Night Moves, engine moaning and gears grinding, are all, however shakily, part of the plan.
While hosing the salt residue off of Night Moves’ glossy exterior, a renegade spray arcs into the top hatch and plunks into the metal cavern within—seemingly just a drop in the ocean. But fearful of the fragile balance of salt, mineral, and water suspended in his precious cargo, Jacobsen covers his face in his hands. “Fuck,” he grumbles. “That’s gonna screw up everything.”
Jacobsen openly despises the word “foodie.” During an itinerant childhood, he grew up eating his Arkansas-born mother’s shrimp and grits, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. His path to haute cuisine was narrow: it started in 2004, when, while he was a starving MBA student in Copenhagen, his Danish girlfriend brought home a 60 kroner (about $10) sack of Scandinavian flake salt. Sticker shock quickly melted into astonishment as the briny flakes dissolved on the back of his tongue. “It was incredible to me how such a simple element—a single ingredient—could transform a whole dish,” he explains.
Jacobsen began sprinkling fleur de sel on everything he ate, from oatmeal to Frikadeller (Danish meatballs) and Flæskesteg (pork roast covered in cracklings). By 2006, as head of global marketing in Norway for Opera Software’s billion-dollar web-browsing empire, his growing obsession had him religiously packing a few ounces of good sea salt in his carry-on for his weekly flights across the globe. “The TSA never stopped me,” he recalls, “and it made the food I was eating that much better.” He even became a collector, archiving everything from coarse octagonal rocks of sel gris to paper-thin sheets of fleur de sel from South Africa, Greece, Mexico, the UK, and Canada. (For a guide to sea salts, see page 3)
In 2008, Jacobsen moved to Portland to join his future wife, Cara, and work on a mobile-app start-up that he imagined would transform Apple’s vast application market into a social media platform. As that company sucked up his savings in the Great Recession, he began taking trips to the Oregon Coast. One day in 2009, sluicing through the calm waters of Netarts Bay, a chain-linked crab pot balanced precariously on the bow of his 14-foot sky blue kayak, he got an idea. He paddled back to shore, crushed his Rainier tallboy on a rock, and waded back into the shallows, filling his three-gallon water bottle with crisp Netarts Bay water. Back home in his drafty 1917 Northwest Portland Craftsman house, Jacobsen dumped its contents into a stockpot. “How hard can this be?” he thought to himself, cranking the gas and walking away as seawater bubbled at full bore. Four hours later, the kitchen was a wreck: thick splotches of salt plastering the walls, the pot rusted and pitted, and his “salt” a bitter, amorphous blob of yellowish sludge. “Man, that was really bad salt,” Jacobsen remembers. “But I was infatuated on a primal level.... I had created something out of nothing, just fire and water—it was elemental.”
Jacobsen is not the first person to make salt on the Oregon Coast. In 1806, American pioneers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, at the end of their two-year expedition, famously returned with 28 gallons of “excellent, fine, strong, white salt” for meat preservation. (For Jacobsen, the annual Salt Makers Living History, a costumed reenactment of Lewis & Clark’s early salt experiments near Seaside, is a constant reminder of untapped potential.) Browse any gourmet market and you’ll find salts with similarly historic roots: fleur de sel from Brittany, flor de sal from Portugal, and, most famously, Maldon Sea Salt from Essex, 40 miles northeast of London, which churns out geometric pyramids prized by chefs worldwide. The Pacific Northwest and England share similar latitudes and a stormy, cool maritime climate. But Netarts Bay has an advantage: each tidal shift cleanses the bay with 85 percent new water, which is further naturally purified by millions of oysters farmed and growing wild. Just as Oregon’s early wine growers saw Burgundy in the Willamette Valley, Jacobsen saw Maldon on the Oregon Coast.
Mark Bitterman is widely considered to be America’s foremost salt expert. A self-described selmelier, his area of expertise is meroir—coined by seafood connoisseurs after wine’s “taste of the land,” or terroir, but with mer, for “sea.” A New York native, Bitterman owns the Meadow, a celebrated gourmet salt emporium with locations on N Mississippi Avenue and in Manhattan’s tony West Village. But among the 120 salts that line his shops’ shelves, there is, he notes, no great American finishing salt. Worldwide industrialization in the late 1800s, Bitterman explains, transformed a coveted resource that was once refined by countless small-batch, centuries-old salt dynasties into the leftovers of a giant economy of scale. Today an estimated 97 percent of salt is made for de-icing and chemical and industrial manufacturing. The remaining 3 percent is packaged for food. Offering an analogy, Bitterman says, “Imagine if all the cheese in the world—all those beautiful Robuchons and Tomme de Savoies and Roqueforts—became Velveeta.” It wasn’t until the 1980s, in a last-ditch effort to save their epicurean tradition, that the paludiers (salt makers) in northern France successfully pushed for government regulations to revive and protect artisan salt. It was the paludiers’ marketing strategy, selling their culturally rich, mineral-laden fleur de sel and sel gris in Paris’s hottest restaurants and to gourmet importers here, that led some American palates to get finicky about their salt, too.
There is no one tried-and-true formula for making sea salt, but the ultimate goal is to capture the essence of the region through painstaking experimentation with time and temperature. Every salt maker carefully guards his own formula, but each must follow a basic blueprint, whether raked by hand off saltwater basins or scooped by machine in a factory. Step one: filtration. Ocean water is purified by allowing the organic matter to settle on the bottom of a basin, or by mechanical filtration through a system of fine-meshed sieves. Step two: pre-evaporation. Purified (typically 3.5 percent) saltwater is reduced to a 5 percent brine, with the undesirable minerals and nitrates crystallized out of the saline equation. Step three: evaporation. The brine is slowly evaporated over super-low temperatures, crystallizing into lace-edged crusts over the course of weeks in the coastal basins in Guérande, Brittany, or for hours in Jacobsen’s industrial evaporation trays on Netarts Bay.
The best salt, Bitterman explains, is one that respects food. “You would never put sel gris on a salad. It’s chunky, robust, and persistent. It would punch through the lettuce, taste too intense, last too long. Likewise, you would never put a flake salt on a steak. It would be a bright, quick spark of flavor, and then—poof—gone. You’d be chewing on unseasoned steak. Salts can be round, warm, and rich, or sweet, bright, and bold, or pungent, mineral, and oceanic. But no matter what, it’s gotta showcase the meroir.”
Over the course of two and a half years, Jacobsen made his way south from Hood Canal, Washington, to Gold Beach, Oregon, sampling seawater at every stop, in search of the purest Pacific water source. His wife, Cara, grudgingly recalls a vacation in Baja, Mexico, watching her husband fill an empty milk jug full of ocean water and sneak it into the hotel kitchen to start the salt-making process. “It was embarrassing,” she says. “People looked at us like we were crazy.”
By April 2011, Jacobsen was pretty sure he had his salt figured out. Using grease cones made for purifying deep-fry oil in restaurants, he removed most of the aquatic impurities. His carefully calibrated timetable involved evaporating the salt over scorching temperatures for four hours, causing the heavy minerals (calcium and magnesium) to scale up the sides of his stockpot. He then brought the brine down to a gentle simmer for 30 hours, before scooping the wet sheets of jagged, evaporated crystal by hand. Dozens of failed efforts resulted in salts of beige and gray. “It was beautiful,” he says of his first successful, grade-A quartz-like shimmer of clear and white.
“With the moving van permanently parked in our driveway, our neighbors were pretty sure we were running a meth lab.”
That June, Cara Jacobsen spotted a flier for the New Seasons vendor fair, where hundreds of hopeful artisans gather every month with tables full of home-pickled vegetables, DIY cheese, and free-range eggs in hopes that their product will be picked up by the local chain. Jacobsen arrived with two bags labeled simply “Netarts Bay, 2011.” Ryan White, a buyer for New Seasons, tried one pinch of the flaky crystals and offered Jacobsen a deal. By that winter, Jacobsen Salt had become one of the most successful product launches in New Seasons history. “Ben couldn’t physically make it fast enough for us to sell,” White says. “We were taking special orders from more than 50 customers per store. Ben would deliver the product, and it rarely even made it to the shelf.”
To satisfy demand, Jacobsen’s kitchen experiments quickly grew into a Mad Max–style assembly line. Several times a week, he would fill a rented Penske moving truck with a few 275-gallon wine totes of Netarts’s finest and head for Portland—the bright yellow van dropping several octaves as it groaned over the Coast Range. Storage tanks and hoses festooned his yard, plus a kiddie pool for experimenting with solar salt. “Since we don’t have children,” Cara laughs, “and with the moving van permanently parked in our driveway, our neighbors were pretty sure we were running a meth lab.”
Recalling his salt-smuggling days while globe-trotting for Opera Software, Jacobsen began distributing mint-size “travel tins,” each containing a few pinches of his white flakes for salting on the go. The campaign went viral among local foodies. His salt is now de rigueur at Portland’s restaurants, called out on menus as proudly as Carlton Farms pork or Draper Valley Farms chicken. At Ox, a carnal stronghold of Argentine barbecue, chef and owner Greg Denton smokes Jacobsen’s salt and sprinkles it on each dish before it leaves the kitchen. “Just look at that sweet little packaging,” Denton says. “Pure, flaky ... like it’s full of crystal meth! I’ve tried salts all across Europe, and Jacobsen’s is one of the best. It’s super-pure, comes in beautiful, huge flakes, has a great minerality, and ends with a clean finish—no bitter aftertaste.”
At Ava Gene’s, a buzzy new Italian restaurant from coffee magnate Duane Sorenson, the entire kitchen staff wears Jacobsen’s branded denim trucker hats in lieu of chef toques, flashing a hefty endorsement to hundreds of well-heeled diners every night. You can taste Jacobsen’s prized flakes melted into 72 percent Ecuadorian chocolate bars from Xocolatl de David, churned into batches of caramel-laced sea salt ice cream from Salt & Straw, and even stirred into quirky experiments like Burnside Brewing’s “Sea Urchin Ale,” alongside heirloom tomato water and sea urchin.
The story of the Northwest’s first sea salt purveyor began to travel beyond Oregon in August 2012. A mutual friend introduced Jacobsen to April Bloomfield, one of the country’s leading food figures, when she came to town. “I felt like we had an instant connection,” says Bloomfield of Jacobsen. “It’s great that they’re an all-American company, and I love how pure and clean [the salt] is. I love it on burnt caramel ice cream and on duck fat potatoes—it gives them a more-ish quality.” The next month, San Francisco offal expert Chris Cosentino met Jacobsen at the international food festival Feast Portland. “It’s a bright, refreshing change from all the other salts, which are weighted down with the complexity of the ocean,” Cosentino says.
For all the excitement and heady endorsements, one person unwilling to fully embrace Jacobsen Salt is Mark Bitterman. The selmelier says he’s excited about the idea of a local artisan salt, and he’s happy to stock Jacobsen Salt on his shelves. (Its “bigness,” he writes in the tasting note, sets it apart from that of other salt-producing territories.) “But in Portland, we have this issue: people are enthusiastic about supporting the local, to a fault,” he says. “Ben’s salt is all about the story, our connection to where the food comes from, which I respect. But he is a guy who has been playing with salt for a few years; he could never come close to a Frenchman following a hundred-year-old tradition for making fleur de sel.”
Chef Kevin Gibson opts to cook Jacobsen Salt–free at his tiny eatery, Evoe, in Southeast Portland. New handmade comestibles and hyperlocal produce land on his chef’s counter everyday. Gibson says he is wary of any overhyped local product, given Portland’s zeitgeisty tendencies. Just because something is local, he says, “doesn’t mean it’s good. Is the appeal more about the story, or the product? With price and quality, it’s like wine: it’s cheaper to buy a French pinot than an Oregon pinot. Comparing dollar for dollar, I’d rather pick the Burgundian wine.”
By January 2013, Jacobsen had gathered investors from across the country—one of Magic Hat Brewing's early investors, Cosentino, and Portland’s own culinary incubators KitchenCru—to build a salt factory. He passed on a World War II–era blimp hangar near Tillamook Bay before settling on an old oyster farm overlooking the mucky shores of Netarts Bay. Inside the tin-lined, teal-roofed factory, everything is supersized. Tanks as large as swimming pools hold fresh Pacific water, and each of the eight evaporating stockpots stands four feet high.
The facility is just the start. Nested by a forest of Douglas firs and juniper trees, Jacobsen plans to transform the two-acre property into a farm-to-table paradise, with a chicken coop, a two-level Cape Cod–style guest quarters, and a 2,000-square-foot vegetable garden. Near a slippery shore that doubles as a boat launch, a clearing will become an outdoor dining room strung with lights, set just a few feet from a panoramic view of the bay and the greenery of Cape Lookout State Park beyond. His anti-foodie tendencies aside, Jacobsen hopes to lure top chefs and his biggest supporters to the idyllic compound, promising supper clubs loaded with Northwest clambakes, and plenty of freshly harvested salt.
But on his inaugural day working at the new factory, Jacobsen must first navigate a perilous three-mile trip with his cache of summer seawater. The tanker, untested for such a use, can’t contain the surges from the thrashing, 6,000-gallon, innerwave pool as it barrels down Whiskey Creek Road. With each jerking halt and every lurch forward, gallons of water gush from a release valve on the side. At the entrance to the new facility, Night Moves begins a hazardous backwards descent, crashing through overgrown evergreens and blocking traffic in both directions. The hulking truck’s enormous wheels spin out as it begins sliding precariously backward down a steep path toward the holding tanks. Night Moves finally stops midway, sinking defiantly into the mud. Throwing up his hands in frustration and preparing himself for the interminable wait for an adequately sized tow truck, Jacobsen walks down to the shore, just a few miles from where he got his first taste of salt fever, and focuses on his grand vision rising from a rusted-out shed littered with the sunbleached skeletons of oysters. Fingering one of the tiny salt travel tins he carries around like a lucky charm, Jacobsen gestures toward the bay, the surface still as glass. “It takes some imagination.”
A Field Guide To Artisan Sea Salts
Traditional salt is a catchall term to describe the majority of sea salts, excluding industrialized varieties that have been koshered or iodized. They are produced worldwide, from Morocco to Vietnam, and can be harvested with the help of solar power, greenhouses, wind, or fire, and later ground into one uniform texture.
Fleur de Sel
Fleur de sel, French for “the flower of salt,” is hand-harvested with rakes from the topmost layer of open-air salt ponds, giving way to delicate, moist, fine, and irregular crystals. Guérande, Brittany, is the most famous producer: it’s where the artisan salt renaissance began in the 1980s. But fleur de sel can be found worldwide, notably in Portugal and Spain.
Sel gris, or “gray salt,” comes from the same pans, lakes, and salt springs as fleur de sel, but is raked from the very bottom of the basin. It owes its steely opaque hue to the porcelain clay that comes along for the ride. Sel gris forms in rough, granular crystals that carry the heaviest minerality and retain the most moisture of any sea salt variety.
Unlike fleur de sel and sel gris, flake salt can be created by heating from below as well as by solar evaporation, which explains how Jacobsen is able to make his particular brand under the Pacific Coast’s heavy cloud cover. Flake salts range in shape and size, from the industry standard Maldon, with flat, striated, geometric pyramids, to Japanese Hana with its seemingly snowflake-thin crystals.
Shio (“salt” in Japanese) is produced only in Japan, heated over a cauldron by wood fire, and agitated with paddles, giving way to tiny, almost microscopic salt crystals. Many varieties, like Shinkai salt, are sourced from underwater currents as deep as 2,000 feet below sea level, promising pure, uncontaminated flakes.