From Sea to Shaker
Story by Xenia Slabina
Photos by Andy Abeyta
Benjamin Jacobsen has loved salt since childhood. But it wasn’t until studying abroad in Scandinavia in 2006 that he experienced a turning point in his relationship with the mineral. One day, Jacobsen’s girlfriend bought a bag of expensive high-grade salt, and the price shocked him. “I was a student—I couldn’t afford $10 for salt. But she brought it home, and I tasted it, and it was so much better than any salt I ever had,” he recalls. “From that point on I took good salt with me wherever I went.”
After returning home to Oregon from his time abroad, Jacobsen began harvesting sea salt along the Oregon coast for fun. Today, he is the owner of Jacobsen Salt Co., which opened in 2011 as Oregon’s first salt harvesting facility since the Lewis and Clark expedition in the 1800s. Jacobsen’s foray into the salt industry was an attempt at harvesting salt using the explorers’ techniques by collecting seawater from the Pacific Ocean and making salt through an evaporation process. “In that sense, it’s done very traditionally: fire, water, and heat,” Jacobsen says.
Now, Jacobsen’s salt is sold in about 50 retail stores and restaurants throughout the Pacific Northwest. “I didn’t set out to start a salt company. It was more like an accident evolved out of a hobby,” he says.
Salt comes in various forms, he explains, including table, kosher, and sea salt. Common table salt is mined from underground salt deposits and is used mostly by bakers because its small grains dissolve quickly. Coarse-grained kosher salt can be harvested from the sea or mined from ground deposits and is regularly used for preserving foods. Jacobsen’s sea salt, harvested by traditional methods, differs in texture and taste from industrially processed salts because its grains come in large, flaky crystals. He says his salt has acquired a following among local restaurant chefs and people who want to enjoy high-quality products.
Tyler and Kimberly Malek, owners of Salt & Straw ice cream shop in Portland, Oregon, use Jacobsen’s salt in some of their ice creams. “We have a sea salt ice cream with caramel ribbons, and we have seasonal flavors that feature salt from time to time,” Kimberly says. She points out the shop’s name, Salt & Straw, comes from the way ice cream was made in the past. “They’d mix rock salt into the ice in the hand crank churn to help it freeze faster. Then they’d pack the ice cream in straw in the barn to help keep it frozen, since there weren’t any freezers back then,” she says. But now, the salt isn’t just used to keep the ice cold. Tyler says Jacobsen’s sea salt is great for enhancing flavor in desserts: “The salt accentuates the chocolate [taste] lost in the ice cream; but rather than producing a salty flavor, it fills your mouth with umami, a pleasant savory flavor.”
The salty ice cream trend, Kimberly explains, took off when President Barack Obama said salted caramel was his favorite sweet flavor. “It seems like that flavor has been turning up everywhere since then. One company that I can remember using a salted caramel before anyone else was Franz Chocolate, but not in ice cream,” she points out.
The Maleks strive to use the best ingredients Oregon has to offer, including dairy, cheese, beer, coffee, and chocolate. “When we found out someone was harvesting a local salt, we were excited to work with them, too,” she says of Jacobsen’s salt. “Ice cream can be a wonderful way to learn about all of the terrific artisan producers around the state.”
Jacobson’s salt harvesting process begins by traveling to Netarts Bay, near Tillamook, Oregon, where seawater is pumped by hand into large tanks. Jacobsen says after testing nearly 25 different locations along the Oregon and Washington coast, he found Netarts Bay was the best for sea salt harvesting for several reasons: The water is clean, and it has high salinity because very few rivers and streams empty into the bay, meaning fewer pollutants are deposited. Additionally, the bay is home to some of the world’s best oysters, which act as natural water filters, Jacobsen says.
As much as one and a half gallons of seawater are needed to produce just four ounces of salt. Once pumped, the water is delivered to KitchenCru, a community kitchen in Portland. At the kitchen, the water is filtered to reduce calcium and magnesium elements that can leave a bitter taste on the back of the tongue. The water is then boiled and slowly evaporated over 25 to 30 hours, which allows the salt crystals to form.
“We take the crystals out of the pan by hand,” says Jacobsen, who lays out the crystals to dry himself, rather than by machine like commercial salt producers. When the evaporation process is complete, the salt is weighed and hand-packaged before being shipped to stores. Jacobsen says reducing seawater to salt this way is a labor-intensive process, taking at least 48 hours from start to finish, and his team stays busy producing nearly 400 pounds of salt each month. “My production team is incredibly important, and I couldn’t do it without them. I hired the best people I could find,” Jacobsen says.
In addition to Jacobsen, the company has two employees: production worker Shannon Dodson and production manager Jennifer Brooks. Brooks’s job is to complete the final salt-making process by transferring newly-formed salt into pans where it can dry. Bending over a large pan at KitchenCru, she carefully smooths out a layer of pure white salt before grabbing a handful of the mineral and placing the thin, ice-shaped crystals onto the other pans. “During my first shift I was just completely intoxicated by the process—by the science behind the salt. It’s like watching snowflakes form,” Brooks says.
Although Jacobsen’s team produces thousands of pounds of salt per year, transporting seawater to Portland requires an enormous amount of additional time and energy. For this reason, he plans to someday move the business closer to the coast, between Netarts and Garibaldi. But, despite these minor inconveniences, he stays optimistic and focuses on the success of his salt.
“I’m really grateful for all the support that we’ve gotten early on. It’s been amazing. I’m humbled by it, frankly,” Jacobsen says with a broad smile.“What we would love to do is to make Oregon, all the Northwest, and—ultimately—the US, proud of a great product that hasn’t existed on the market here.”