When it came time to find a partner for Portland's Woodblock chocolate, Salt & Straw co-owner Tyler Malek played it straight for once. No wacky ingredients, just the world's most common one: salt.

Malek had just met Ben Jacobsen, who'd spent the past three years dabbling in salt the way a homebrewer dabbles in yeast and hops.

The difference is that artisan salt making in the U.S. is so uncommon that there were no how-to guides or recipes to follow. There was no equipment to buy, so Jacobsen got everything he needed custom-made.

"It's easy to make bad beer and crappy salt," Jacobsen says. "It's hard to make good beer and good salt."

To add depth and texture to the chocolate, Malek had come upon an old-school ice cream-making technique called freckling, which leaves bits of chocolate suspended in an untempered state for a little crunch. Salt is added to the ice cream at the very start.

“Good salt brightens everything up,” Malek says. “It mellows it out, brings out the sweetness.”

Jacobsen discovered that Netarts Bay is perfect for salt as well as oysters: 85 percent of the water is refreshed with each tidal change, making the water fresh and clear.

The labor-intensive process starts with filtering the bay water through a sand filter at least five times. Then the water is boiled to pare back the calcium and magnesium, which can give sea salt a bitter taste. The brine is transferred to evaporation pans and sits for 24 to 40 hours. Salt crystals form in the bottom, where they drain and dry before Jacobsen hand-sorts them according to size (smaller bits are mineral salt; larger ones are flake).

He makes two 120-pound batches per week. Each takes three to four days, from sea water to package.

Salt & Straw had been selling 4-ounce bags of Jacobsen Salt for $10 in its shops and offering sprinkles for each scoop upon request.

Other local artisans took notice. Jacobsen Salt has been used in Portland-based Xocolatl de David bars and Spielman Coffee Roaster's bagels, as well as Paley's Place, Ned Ludd, Lincoln and Ava Jean's restaurants.

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