Maker worth his salt: Bay alum built a business from waters of Netarts Bay

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

Did you know?

On Dec. 28, 1805, William Clark directed three of his men to “commence making Salt with 5 of the largest Kittles.” At a camp on the Oregon coast, they boiled ocean water. By Feb. 24, 1806, they had about four bushels of the salt they needed to preserve and flavor their food.

— Lewis and Clark National Historical Park


Learn more about Jacobsen Salt and shop at jacobsensalt.com

PORTLAND — Millions of people followed Lewis and Clark to the Northwest.

Ben Jacobsen is following a less-beaten path pioneered by the Corps of Discovery two centuries ago. Jacobsen turns Oregon coastal water into sea salt.

The Hudson’s Bay High School graduate owns Jacobsen Salt Co. He takes his raw material from the Pacific Ocean and harvests delicate flakes that enhance the flavor of everything from just-picked tomatoes to licorice.

It’s not the sort of ingredient that a cook would shake into a bubbling pot of soup. For one thing, the flakes don’t fit through a salt shaker’s holes.

“It’s finishing salt. It’s used for finishing a dish. You take a pinch and sprinkle it on with your fingers,” Jacobsen said recently in his Portland office. The 1920s brick structure, which also serves as a warehouse, was once a dairy.

The salt comes from Netarts Bay in Oregon, just west of Tillamook. It’s because of the seawater; Jacobsen did a lot of sampling, and he likened it to a wine maker’s looking for the best grapes.

“I got a few gallons of water from more than 25 different spots along the Oregon and Washington coasts, from Gold Beach to Hood Canal. I made salt from each of them, and then compared the salts,” Jacobsen said.

“The differences are striking, much as the differences in grapes. Things that influence the flavor, texture, and color of salt are clarity of the water, salinity of the water, inflow of rivers, streams, and other runoff,” he said. “Netarts Bay was by far the best water I could find, so we settled there.”

The production system was another result of testing a lot of variables.

“It’s very easy to make bad salt; it’s very difficult to make good salt,” Jacobsen said.

A lost craft

Jacobsen came across sea salt in Europe when he was a college student. He was amazed at the flavor, and wanted to make some. It’s been well documented that you can boil seawater to make salt, he said, but “it was a lost craft after the Industrial Revolution.”

Jacobsen’s rediscovery process took 2½ years. “It was all trial and error,” he said.

One problem is the calcium in seawater, he said. That’s what makes it hard to go to the coast with the kids, bring home a gallon of water and try to make your own salt.

“At home in the kitchen, you’re not able to remove the calcium,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen and his crew make their salt in an old oyster farm facility they took over 17 months ago.

“We used to haul water from the coast to Portland. Now we haul salt.”

To start the process, “We filter seawater to get out the sediment and plankton and crustaceans,” the 1994 Bay graduate said.

“We boil it to bring down some of the volume,” he said. That’s also when they can remove most of the calcium, which scales onto the sides of the kettles.

“Then we transfer it to large, custom-made, stainless steel evaporation pans. More brine evaporates with a little heat. Salt crystals form and we harvest them from the pan, drain them, and then dry them.” Jacobsen said. “Then we hand-sort and hand-package everything.”

One gallon of seawater — just over eight pounds — will produce two or three ounces of salt. Jacobsen made 5,000 pounds of salt last year.

“We will quadruple that this year,” he said.

Jacobsen Salt has received a lot of national recognition recently, including pieces published by the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Times.

The salt is sold by organic food retailers in the Northwest and is available in gourmet restaurants in Vancouver and Portland.

All handcrafted salts are trying make their way against one of the most iconic brands in the history of American marketing, personified by an umbrella-toting girl on a cylindrical blue box. The mass-marketed product is so cheap and so abundant that a label on a Morton Salt boxes urges people to use less of it. There is a section that advises consumers to “salt responsibly” and offers tips for controlling salt intake.

A four-ounce package of Jacobsen Salt, slightly bigger than a smartphone, costs about $10. What does a customer get for the money?

“It’s the most effective way to elevate your food,” he said.

Simple pleasures

It’s not necessarily about gourmet cooking, either, Jacobsen said.

“The simple things are best, like frying an egg in the morning,” Jacobsen said. A sprinkling of salt flakes provides a “nice delicate crunch and bursts of bright salinity that isn’t overpowering or astringent.”

And unlike most $10 purchases you set on the table, that four-ounce package of salt will last a family of four a couple of months, Jacobsen said.

Vancouver restaurant-owner Brad Root doesn’t use Jacobsen’s product, but he’s a fan of artisan-made salts.

“As a flavor enhancer, it’s fantastic,” Root said, noting that it’s a great way to finish meat and fish.

“Sea salt provides a much cleaner flavor,” Root added.

And the intense flavor has another benefit — something that even the Morton people could go along with.

“You can use less salt,” Root said.