While attending business school in Copenhagen in 2004, Ben Jacobsen fell in love with Maldon sea salt, the flaky finishing salt prized by chefs. Returning to the United States--landing in Portland, Oregon--he was shocked to find that no one here was harvesting anything like that high-end sea salt.

After his mobile-app-discovery startup went belly-up, Jacobsen began lugging 275-gallon wine totes of seawater from Netarts Bay back to his home in Portland, where he re-created the laborious (and messy) process of evaporating the water to make salt. "I destroyed cookware and pots and pans and made a mess in the oven and everything else," Jacobsen says. "It was definitely a learning experience." Today, his category-defining American flaky sea salt is the favored salt of celebrity chefs.

The process of salt-making is now much more efficient at Jacobsen's 6,000-square-foot production facility on the Oregon coast, where the company has built custom equipment. Jacobsen's 42-person crew harvests 18,000 pounds of salt per month, which is then sent to the warehouse in Portland's Central Eastside to be packaged and shipped out to Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, and thousands of other retailers across the country. "Like the people who went to California 240 years ago and wondered if it was possible to grow grapes and make wine there," says Jacobsen, "we're the first in our category to make great salt in the U.S. mainstream."

Isle of Salt

Four-mile-long Netarts Bay, a protected estuary an hour and a half west of Portland on the Oregon coast, is an ideal spot to harvest salt, because the water is so pristine. "There are very few freshwater inputs," explains Ben Jacobsen, founder of Jacobsen Salt. This means both that the water has more salinity, and that there's less fertilizer and pesticide runoff to pollute the bay. "Then there are the oysters and clams that filter the water," says Jacobsen. The bay is protected by a long, club-shaped slice of land known as Netarts Spit.

Strange Brew

Seawater is pumped from Netarts Bay into Jacobsen Salt's holding tank and then into one of a dozen 300-gallon custom-made boil tanks. The boiling process evaporates water and removes calcium and some magnesium. Pictured, Dan Maggard monitors each tank once an hour for three days to check the salinity levels. (And yes, that includes the night shift.) As the water evaporates, more is added, leaving behind an ultra-concentrated salt brine.

A Flaky Process

The salt brine is then moved indoors to shallow, stainless-steel evaporation pans. Over the next few days, delicate salt crystals will form, becoming more dense than the brine and falling to the bottom of the pans. Above, Maggard gently scoops the salt crystals out from the bottom up, using a slotted shovel so the brine can drip out. Ultimately, the crystals go into plastic trays that are stacked at a tilt on speed racks (so brine can continue to drip out) and moved to a dehydration room.

Creativity With Condiments

Jacobsen, now 42, bootstrapped his company with $30,000 he raised on Kickstarter. Since then, he's never stopped thinking about how to push the boundaries of salt. He has collaborated with Uncle Nearest 1856 Whiskey to make whiskey salt, with Stumptown Coffee Roasters to make Hair Bender salt, and with L.A.-based condiment company Entube to make mole, harissa, and curry paste. In 2015, Jacobsen also acquired the artisanal honey company Bee Local.

Nature's Laboratory

After the salt dries, it gets hand-sifted so that it breaks apart into flakes. Each flake is unique, like a snowflake. "The shape of each crystal is due to the chemical makeup of the brine and to the time and temperature at which we evaporate the salt," Jacobsen says. "If we were to try to make our salt very quickly, you wouldn't achieve the same taste or texture." The two-week production process results in flake finishing salt ($12 for four ounces) and kosher salt ($7.50 per pound) that are sold by retailers across the country.

From the May 2018 issue of Inc. Magazine