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Salt of the Earth

Jacobsen Salt Co. proudly harvests flake and kosher sea salts from the cold, pristine waters of the Oregon coast.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Food Manufacturing

Creating America’s finest flake and kosher sea salts: that is the mission of Jacobsen Salt Co.

Proprietor Ben Jacobsen founded the Oregon-based company in 2011, proudly wearing the title of the only artisan salt company in the Pacific Northwest. Today, the delicate flakes are known for their pure taste, texture and appearance, and are used by chefs around the world.

“My (reason) for getting into it was really just a fascination with how to figure out how to make really great salt,” Jacobsen said in a recent interview with Food Manufacturing. “It took two-and-a-half years for me to figure that out. And then once I did, a local grocery store placed an order and it was ten times more than I had ever made at once. And after that it just kind of took off.”

And so began Jacobsen Salt Co.

Jacobsen, who said he learned to appreciate finishing salts while living and working in Scandinavia following college, turned his interest in salt into something more after moving back to the Pacific Northwest several years ago.

"I was just amazed by how great (salt) made very regular everyday food, and thought that it was so transformative,” Jacobsen said. “I'm not a great cook, but by using great salt I can make really average food really exceptional. So that's kind of where my fascination began.

“And then I moved back to the Pacific Northwest, and thought it was strange how nobody really in America was making really delicious, exceptional salts … You could get produce and meats and fish and vegetables and grains and butter from the U.S., but people would still buy salt from France or salt from the U.K. if they wanted really good stuff. To me, that was strange because I lived in Oregon and the ocean was 85 miles away."

Jacobsen’s two-and-a-half year experimentation and testing phase involved searching approximately 30 spots along the coastline of Oregon and Washington for the best possible water source for making salt. He found it in Netarts Bay, which is located about 80 miles west of Portland.

"Netarts Bay water is exceptionally clean and briny. I think it's arguably the cleanest bay on the west coast of the U.S.,” Jacobsen said, citing the few freshwater inputs coming into Netarts Bay, tidal changes that replenish the bay every 12 hours, and the significant number of oysters that inhabit the bay and filter water as they are feeding.  “You combine that with our process and you end up with this perfect storm of ridiculously clean, pure seawater. And the product is a really beautiful, delicate salt that's very briny tasting, and tastes like the sea with no bitter aftertaste whatsoever.”

Now, four years into its existence, the Pacific Northwest’s only hand-harvested salt company has evolved into a growing, and thriving, enterprise.

“I had very low expectations when I started this. It was really just on a whim and it was a hobby for a while,” Jacobsen said. “It's definitely exceeded expectations. We've grown tremendously. We're four years old now and we're profitable and we've created a brand and really kind of redefined the category of salts in America, I believe.

“We're the first to harvest salt in the Northwest since Lewis and Clark, and that's a tremendous feat in and of itself … To know we're the first company to make salt here is kind of crazy.”

One Flake at a Time

At the company’s outset, Jacobsen would visit Netarts Bay weekly and hand pump water into plastic drums before transporting them back to Portland where he would collect flakes by hand in a commercial kitchen. “Kind of what I needed to do at the time,” Jacobsen said. “(I) did that for nearly two years, and finally got a facility on the coast, and that’s where we are now, and we’ve been in production 24/7 for two years straight.”

Jacobsen purchased a former oyster farm on Netarts Bay, which now serves as the company’s processing facility. The company’s headquarters and warehouse, which is where the majority of the packing takes place, is located in downtown Portland.

Four years ago, Jacobsen brought in a few workers to start them at ground zero — teaching and training them in his operation — and the company quickly began to take off. Jacobsen started out by producing three pounds of salt a week. The company now produces 12,000 pounds a month, and is growing. “We've grown in capacity about 300 percent per year,” Jacobsen said. “It's been pretty non-stop. In a good way, though.”

Jacobsen and his team are working around the clock to keep pace with the demand. “The whip cracking never stops,” Matthew Domingo, director of sales and marketing at Jacobsen Salt Co., said with a laugh. “The last time there was nobody here, it was for about two-and-a-half hours for a Christmas party.”

Domingo said the company is creating an industry that literally did not exist before. “The fact that there are 35 people that work here now, those are 35 jobs that didn’t exist. And it’s not like when you open up a new restaurant, you bring in 35 people, but they were working at another restaurant. When we brought in people, these were jobs that did not exist before. That’s the cool part about this whole thing.”

But creating a new industry certainly doesn’t come easy. Jacobsen and his team have had to create all of their equipment.

Because there is no salt making industry in the Pacific Northwest, or even one large enough on the Western coast, the tools and equipment used in Jacobsen’s salt-making process are all custom-made. The boils and the pans used in the evaporation process, along with the shovels used for scooping the flakes from the water — all of it is custom fabrication. “We made those shovels,” Domingo said. “We bought big aluminum grain scoops and then we had to perforate them. Someone literally stood there with a drill and drilled a bunch of holes in it to create what was needed.”

Just as there was no way to hire experienced workers, it’s impossible for the team to go out and buy the necessary equipment. “When you really think about how this whole manufacturing process has grown, it’s insane,” Domingo said.

The Process

With a 24/7 operation, the seawater is constantly being pumped in from the bay, where it gets filtered various times in the “pump house.” Each time the water gets pumped in, another filtration process begins.

After approximately two days of filtration, the water is moved into 300-gallon boilers that are outside. Here, the baywater gets boiled down, more water is added, and then it is boiled down again. This process is repeated for several days until a nice, thick brine has settled.  

Because making the perfect flake is essential for Jacobsen Salt, every six hours the water is measured with a stick to see how much of the brine has gone into the water and what the salinity is like. The team operates in a very narrow temperature range, because if the water gets too hot or too cold the salt will either be too fine or turn into rock salt. So to ensure its perfectly-flaked salt, the company is constantly checking the temperature range with special thermometers.

Jacobsen Salt does what most artisan salt companies do not – reducing the minerality of the salt by removing some of the calcium and magnesium. While the salt will stay in the solution, the other stuff gets precipitated out and scales to the side of the pot.

Although the water all comes from the same bay, the salinity can vary. “We test the salinity of the water coming in from the bay because after a rainstorm, for example, it will be less salty. And some days it will be more salty. So we change how much brine has to go in based on that because we know what we want out as far as concentration goes,” Domingo said.

No matter which salt product is being made, the process is always the same. Once this step is finished, the water is cooled before being pumped into the four big, round tanks to be filtered again. At this point, it’s not just seawater anymore. Salt begins to form on the surface, and when it gets too heavy to float, the flakes will fall down to the bottom.

The team then scoops it out with one of its custom-made shovels and transfers it to trays. Here, the salt will harvest from anywhere between a few hours to a few days before being moved into the dehydrator.

Because salt tends to clump when it dries, the team manually sifts through the crystals with its version of a classifying pan. “The equipment is essentially like gold-mining equipment,” Domingo said. “It is very hands on. No automation. We have fantasies of automating a lot of this someday, especially since we are growing so fast.”

Success With Salt

Today, the salts claim a diverse group of fans. There are top-rated chefs from around the world. There are purveyors of chocolate chip cookies, ice creams, chocolate candies, cocktails and more. Even specialty shops and home cooks are attracted to the variety of Jacobsen salts.

“It’s just one of those things … Who knew that there was so much demand out there for a good salt?” Domingo said.

Jacobsen said his company’s salt has three pillars: Taste, texture and color.

Taste: “Our salt is very clean and briny with no astringent aftertaste. And that's very, very deliberate on our part. We're always shooting for that when we make a batch of salt,” Jacobsen said.

Texture: “(Our) salt is light and flaky. Beautiful large flakes, but it can also be very easily manipulated in your fingertips and broken up into smaller pieces to spread over food,” Jacobsen said.

Color: “Our salt is almost shimmering, translucent white. Almost like freshly shaved ice. And it's really, really beautiful. So, that's again that color that we want to go for just because it's beautiful. We didn't want a salt that was yellowish or grainy,” Jacobsen said.

According to Domingo, the company’s PR strategy has been “if you build it, they will come.” Chefs from around the world see the quality in Jacobsen salts and have began adopting it into their own cooking. “Without us even asking them to do it, these chefs are turning into spokespeople for the brand. We don’t even have to do much of anything, we just have to make sure that the right people have our stuff, and that our commitment to quality stays strong,” Domingo added.

Jacobsen Salt produces three kinds of salt: Kosher Sea Salt, Grinding Salt and the Classic Flake Finishing Salt. Beyond its classic salts, the company also boasts an extensive assortment of infused salts, including: Lemon Zest, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Vanilla Bean, Stumptown Coffee, Smoked Salt, Smoked Ghost Chili, and White Truffle, just to name a few.

Jacobsen Salt believes its infusions are top of the line. “We make our salts, so we can actually control the dampness of it coming out of the evaporation pans. That way, we can create a stronger infusion of flavors, which makes it so much better,” Domingo said.

The Pinot Noir infusion, for example, is one salt flavor that takes multiple attempts to make it perfect. “We will add wine to it several times to get it a significantly darker purple,” Domingo said. “Then we put it back in the dryers to dehydrate until it gets to the right color.”

Infused products such as Habanero Salt, Garlic Salt, and Onion Salt just hit the market and are available at every Williams-Sonoma store in the country. The company is constantly trying out new flavors and infusions, and says it is launching around 15-20 new products this year alone.

In addition to its classic and infused salts, the company also produces a line of salty confections — Salty Black Licorice, Salty Caramels, Salty Honey Nut Chews, and Salty Maple Chews — cocktail salts, and pantry staples, such as albacore tuna, granola, and herb and salt bagel chips. “Last year, our black licorice was the most sold confection product, but this year the caramels seem to be on top,” Domingo said.

Jacobsen Salt holds around 1,500 wholesale accounts right now. Its products can be found in almost every state at retailers like Whole Foods, New Seasons, Williams-Sonoma, and small specialty shops. The company also has its products in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and most of Western Europe. And just this past summer, Jacobsen Salt began sending out its candies to the Williams-Sonoma stores in Kuwait.

So what exactly does the future hold for Jacobsen Salt?

“First and foremost, I want to continue to try and satisfy customer demand,” Jacobsen said. “We've got a lot of demand out there and we need to just continue with scaling up production … (and) be a really great employer, and really protect our brand, and work with great chefs and retailers and manufacturers that really value great ingredients. That's what’s most important to me on a daily basis.”