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.”