NETARTS – The sea salt Ben Jacobsen harvests using water from Netarts Bay is bright, flaky and airy. It has a beautiful finish, no aftertaste, and its flavor is that of pure, clean ocean.
Jacobsen’s new business venture is so simple, yet it’s already transforming the culinary experience in the Pacific Northwest. His 4-ounce packages of sea salt sell for about $10, and are being used by several gourmet restaurants in Portland and on the Oregon coast.
He currently produces his salt at a community commercial kitchen in Portland, but he’s looking to bring the energy-intensive production closer to his source, in Tillamook County.
“It’s a really good, clean, organic industry that has the potential to grow and prosper,” said Dan Biggs, director of the Economic Development Council and Small Business Development Center in Tillamook. “We’re excited about his business.”
Jacobsen, 36, lives in Portland with his wife, Cara. He claims he’s not a “foodie.”
“I’ve just always appreciated great food,” he said. “I’m a very amateur home chef. I’m an everyday person who loves great food and great salt.”
His love for high quality sea salt originated when he was in Scandinavia, where he lived and worked for more than 14 years.
“Back then I didn’t know the difference between sea salt and Morton’s,” he said. “Salt was salt.”
He was out shopping with a friend one day when she picked up a box of local sea salt, purchasing it for the equivalent of about $8. Jacobsen tried the salt and loved it.
“Then I began traveling a lot for work,” he said. “I would buy a box of sea salt and take it back with me everywhere I went. For me, it made each meal that much more enjoyable.”
After earning his MBA in Scandinavia, Jacobsen moved to Portland, where he started the internet company Mobspot, a platform for mobile app users. He was surprised that there was no local sea salt available.
“I thought it was strange that we had such a strong food culture – great local meat, fish, produce, nuts,” he said. “It was great but I couldn’t get local sea salt.
“There’s nothing from the Pacific Northwest, let alone the Oregon coast.”
Jacobsen first began making his salt as a hobby. Whenever he would come to Netarts to kayak, he’d bring a few gallons of water back to Portland and make small amounts of sea salt in his kitchen. He tested the water quality of 25 different spots on the Oregon coast and found the contents of Netarts Bay to be superior.
“There are very few tributaries here, less brackish water, and the world’s best oysters grow here,” he said. “There is very little runoff, very few farms here too, no manure, no nitrogen from feed and fertilizers. And I just really like this area.”
After makings salt from home for about a month, Jacobsen took a sample to the New Season’s Vendors Fair, which provides an opportunity for local producers to meet buyers in person. His salt was immediately picked up and ordered for the store, and Jacobsen Salt Co. was officially formed. That was about four months ago, in September 2011.
“It’s been fantastic from there, especially the great feedback,” he said.
Netarts chef Tom Flood Jr. has only positive things to say about Jacobsen’s salt. Flood has been using it as a finishing salt at his restaurant, the Schooner, for several months.
“For me it’s kind of two-fold,” Flood said. “Not only do I get to stay as local as humanly possible, but the salt itself is delicious and light and has a textural advantage.”
Flood said the salt’s flakey texture makes it superb as a finish to salads, meats and Italian breads.
“The fact that this is airy and lighter allows you to get that crunch,” he said. “To get that crunch with normal sea salt, you’d have it over-salted. It’s lighter, airier, has a textural advantage, not to mention a superb flavor profile.”
Jacobsen is not the first person in the Pacific Northwest to render salt from the ocean, but the last notable time it was done was 207 years ago. During the winter of 1805, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark harvested salt in Seaside to preserve meat for their journey back home.
Back then, the salt was harvested by boiling water in kettles 24 hours a day over a fire. Today, Jacobsen hauls it hundreds of gallons at a time, over Highway 6 to a commercial kitchen in Portland to boil. Even today, the process of making sea salt remains labor intensive.
Right now, Jacobsen rents a U-Haul to bring water from Netarts Bay to KitchenCru, a shared commercial kitchen facility in downtown Portland.
“We’re producing it in Portland but we’re trying to take steps to start it here on the coast,” he said. “It’s incredibly inefficient. It requires a lot of filtration, an incredible amount of energy and tremendous amount of labor.”
Jacobsen is now working with the local economic development council and other community business people to either build or convert a facility for his use somewhere between Netarts and Garibaldi.
“This is an example where an entrepreneur has a business, a small business, and in this case, he’s using water off the coast of Oregon, so it makes sense for him to have his operations close to his source of supply,” Biggs said. “It’s pretty zippy – it’s really a good product that has traction in the marketplace.”
Jacobsen Salt can be purchased at Salt & Straw, New Seasons, Pastaworks, and Food Front in Portland. So far, there aren’t any local vendors for the product.
For more on places where his salt can be enjoyed with a meal, visit his Facebook page, Jacobsen Salt Co.