Hand-Harvesting Salt from the Sea with Ben Jacobsen of Jacobsen Salt in Portland

Maker Tour

Who: Ben Jacobsen
What: Jacobsen Salt
Where: North Oregon Coast

Salt is so basic, elemental, and simple. It's one of the one of the oldest local foods, having been harvested by sea–faring people for thousands of years. You could argue that it is the one cooking ingredient with the strongest sense of place, locality, history and importance. Salt is essential. Ben Jacobsen believes everyone deserves hand-harvested sea salt, so he gathers buckets of brine from the blustery Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon (about 80 miles from Portland) and transforms them into glorious white crystals.

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Ben learned to appreciate finishing salts while living in Norway and Copenhagen for several years. Upon returning to the Pacific Northwest he was struck by the burgeoning creativity within the Portland food scene and the collective emphasis on using locally- made produce and ingredients whenever possible. There was something amiss however; no one was making the baseline substance that touched each and every morsel of food. Ben began tinkering with salt by traveling to the nearby coastline, determining the sweet spots for salinity, minerality and taste and testing over 25 different locations. He walked in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who attempted to harvest salt from the chilly Oregon waters over 200 years ago.

Ben's three year experimentation phase led to the only hand harvested salt company in the Pacific Northwest. He now has too many orders, and his salt claims a diverse group of fans. There are the Michelin Star-rated chefs who use his salt exclusively; the purveyors of chocolate chip cookies (a revelation if you've never tried this standard flavor dusted with sea salt!), ice creams, chocolates, bagels and cocktails; as well as shops specializing in handmade, beautiful goods and home cooks who've come around to quality salts. Ben is now a few weeks away from moving into a production space of over 2,000 feet after working in a crowded cooperative commercial kitchen in downtown Portland for the past year. It's a good problem to have - Ben and his team are working around the clock to keep pace with the demand for his traditionally created, pure salt crystals. For an essential I unabashedly took for granted, it was illuminating and humbling to witness the simplicity of the harvest (buckets of water and the ocean!) and the obsessive, tender care put into each batch.

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The process of making salt starts with a once a week visit to a special coastal spot (I accompanied Ben to Netarts Bay) and carrying buckets or hand pumping 275 gallons of sea water into plastic drums (which weigh about 400 pounds), cooking the brine down on six burners in massive pots, and moving the reduced salt water to evaporation pans. After another 12 or so hours, Jacobsen gathers the formed salt crystals with a large mesh spoon, spreads the salt onto drying pans and bags it up. A 4–ounce bag will set you back about $10.

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The Test Kitchen
Ben and his small team have been working within a 300 square foot spot at a communal commercial kitchen, KitchenKru, in downtown Portland for the past year. Several other producers use this space to create baked goods, hot sauces, and cured meats. The energy is palpable upon setting your foot in the door; all the small businesses support and push each other to be their very best. It's a very popular place, but Ben's needs have outgrown the square footage. Jacobsen Salt is currently in the process of signing a lease on a workshop closer to the coast where visitors can see the salty brine being cooked down and dried into salt as well as take part in tastings. Perhaps we'll get to tour that space in a few months!

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The Secret Sauce
The secret is that there is no secret with Ben Jacobsen's salts. The guy exudes passion, determination, and commitment to this unique niche he's fulfilling within the northwest food scene. His pride of place, love of the ocean, and respect for daily pleasures — to be enjoyed with a sprinkle of real good salt— keep him going despite the long hours and stress of being a small business owner. Ben wears his heart on his sleeve and is relentless in his enthusiasm for quality salt. His flake finishing sea salt has won me over and taken up residence in my daily salt jar. Nothing beats it for minerality, fresh ocean taste, clean mouthfeel and delicate texture.

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The Business Plan
Jacobsen Salt hit the ground running with a multipronged strategy. They host tastings at local grocery stores and markets, educate cooks and chefs on the nuances of the product so they know what they're cooking with, and co-host events like the recent Feast kick off party in New York City (Feast is an upcoming Portland food festival). Ben also has a Kickstarter campaign going on now to help fund his new, larger facility. His business goal is to create more jobs on the Oregon coast, streamline production to a more localized space, and meet the demands for his product. And catch up on sleep one day!

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The Community
The relationships Ben has formed have been pivotal to his success. He's partnered with an array of local Portland chefs who adore his salt; this means a great deal to Ben. Many Portland artisans season their products with Jacobsen Salt and from there, his customer base and fans begin to see his tell–tale, chic, mint–green labeled bag everywhere. Portland is a city with dedicated eaters and appreciators of the most handmade, sustainably sourced, story-driven foods. (Have you seen Portlandia? The chicken scene is dead on!) We are the perfect city for Ben to have dabbled with an idea in then subsequently informed the culinary landscape with the most critical, baseline taste. Sprinkle by sprinkle, flake by flake.

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6 Quick Questions for Ben Jacobsen

Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
Hmm... Honestly, I'm pretty basic when it comes to my kitchen. Farmers' markets, my parent's garden (they have a ton of stuff) for produce and eggs. I love the store Canoe, and they have a bunch of tabletop items. Portland Fruit Tree Project is a brilliant site and organization you can access to figure out where and what to harvest in your area.

The one thing you can't live without?
Good hugs!

If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
Anthony Bourdain. How could I not?! Good, real food, great drinks. I can just imagine the stories that guy has.

What's in your Google reader?
The Kitchn
NPR Food
Eater
Portland Monthly Eat Beat

If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
Establish a production facility on the Oregon Coast. Create jobs and help kickstart the coastal economy.

What's your favorite thing to sprinkle salt on?
Keep it simple. Bread and butter. A fresh slice of watermelon. Fried eggs and toast.

Thanks, Ben!

• Visit Ben's Kickstarter Campaign: Jacobsen Salt Kickstarter

• Check out Ben's Site: Jacobsen Salt

Related: Maker Tour: A Visit with Suzanne Fuoco of Pink Slip Jam

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)

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