This is a story about salt. It's a humble mineral for one that has served as ancient currency and shaped historic trade routes.
But this is also a story about Alaska oceans, a love of place and a passion for creating an unparalleled product to share with the world.
Darcy and Jim Michener, founders of Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co., have quietly pioneered North America's salt renaissance from their homegrown operation in Sitka.
After years of lugging jugs of seawater up the dock, they perfected the methodology to produce a unique flake-style salt. Those flakes are spreading throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, finding a place in the go-to arsenal of top chefs and in the pantries of home cooks.
In May 1999, Jim Michener woke during his honeymoon with a troublesome thought. He and his wife, Darcy, were staying in a remote Southeast island cabin, and they'd left a pot of saltwater on the stovetop overnight. Jim worried it had gone dry and ruined the pan; instead, he found some remaining water with a few odd floaters.
At first, he thought it was dust, and he brought over a flashlight for a closer look. "It was actually beautiful salt crystals forming on the surface," he said. "I remember thinking, this is like French Fleur de Sal, only it's from Alaskan water — how cool is that?"
In retrospect, it seemed obvious: Evaporated seawater makes salt. "It was just by chance that it happened this way and we noticed it and thought it was kind of fun," Jim said.
The Micheners decided to evaporate the rest of the pot into salt and take it home. "The first batch wasn't very good," Darcy said. "It tasted salty, but it had the texture of sand." But still, it was a nice memory of their honeymoon trip. Each following year, Jim and Darcy returned to the same cabin for their anniversary, bringing back a small batch of homemade salt each time.
In search of the perfect flake
Before long, the Micheners grew curious about how to make truly great salt. They sampled high-quality brands from around the world and learned of an English company, Maldon, the world's leader in flake-style salt. "It had a nice crunch and a good, clean flavor," Jim recalled. "It was spectacular. We realized we wanted to make that, and make it from pure Alaskan seawater."
At the time, the world's flake salt operations were sparse: England, Cyprus, Australia. Nothing in North America, but the Micheners had a vision. After all, there's no supply problem — scientists estimate the world's oceans contain 50 million billion tons of salt.
It began with a large lasagna pan. Jim, who worked as a fishing guide, would come home each day with 5 gallons of seawater, ready to tinker. "We would basically run the experiment over and over," he said. "Changing one variable at a time, we were trying to achieve a good flake."
It was a summer of evaporating water on the kitchen stove, a summer the Micheners refer to now as the "Lasagna Pan Summer."
They ordered a custom 50-gallon pan. Jim trucked home 50 gallons of water in the morning and 50 in the evening, relentlessly experimenting while keeping the whole operation secret.
Years went by. The Micheners saved money, wrote business plans and fine-tuned their product. "We're using this Alaskan water that is so amazing, and we really wanted to make sure we honored our community, ourselves and the product," Jim said. "We wanted to be able to look people in the eye and say this is as good as any flake salt in the world and it's made from beautiful, pristine Alaskan water."
By 2011, the Micheners had constructed a small factory and were ready for their first large-scale trial. "We basically made a big leap of faith," Darcy said. "All of our equipment was custom-made because nothing existed for salt-making. We had tried so many times and we thought it would work, but we just didn't know."
The first batch was set to take 12 hours to create. But after 12 hours, no salt had formed.
"It was utter panic," Jim said. "I knew I'd been thorough with this and there was no reason it shouldn't work. But if it didn't work, we'd be homeless and broke."
He reviewed his calculations, only to discover he'd made a small error, and the process would take 48 hours longer than expected. The Micheners were sleeping and eating at the factory, setting an alarm to check on the salt every hour. After three days, the salt finally formed: white flakes, exquisite and bright. The Micheners popped a bottle of Champagne at 10 a.m.
At the heart of it, salt-making is the easiest recipe in the world. Just go to any body of saltwater. Scoop some out, and evaporate it. The challenge is in making consistent crystals because water that evaporates out of a vessel has various concentrations of salt brine, and constant adjustments are needed to keep the flakes uniform.
Alaska Pure Sea Salt is considered a flake salt, a finishing salt for sprinkling on food in the final stages. The flakes are slightly smaller than some of the world's other flake salts, deliberately so.
"Our flake size is a little more approachable for everybody, including the average home cook," Darcy said.
The whole process requires three to four days, and each batch starts with more than 1,000 gallons of water. It takes around 10 gallons of seawater to yield a pound of salt. The factory runs 24 hours a day, and one of the Micheners must be around to tend to the product every six hours.
With about 1,500 pounds of salt produced monthly, the operation is quite small in the world of salt manufacturing. Jim and Darcy run all aspects of the business themselves and last summer opened their first retail store.
Anchored in Sitka
The Micheners hope to build their name upon their basic, classic salt, but they've also begun to play around with new, seasonal flavors.
"We started thinking, let's just make sure we're really true to our sense of place, where we live and where we've lived for decades: in Sitka, in Southeast Alaska," Jim said. "Let's make salts that are indicative of who we are and where we are."
They started with a smoked alder flavor in honor of the tree's local abundance and cultural significance. Then came a vibrant purple blueberry salt — the first in the world. Last in the collection was a spruce tip flavor, a recipe that took the Micheners two years to perfect.
Colette Nelson, chef and owner of Ludvig's Bistro in Sitka, has been one of the culinary forces who recognizes the value of salt grounded in place.
"The thing that I really like about serving their salt at the restaurant is that we pride ourselves in serving Alaskan seafood, and then when we add their salt — that's what ocean to plate really is," Nelson said. "Alaskan seafood served with salt from the water that the seafood is swimming in — it's a full ocean-to-plate experience."
Nelson uses the salt on grilled asparagus and salmon, as well as atop a chocolate torte. "It's still a relatively new concept for people to have a finishing salt," Nelson said. "But they're really getting the flavor of Sitka with it."
For the Micheners, Sitka has been a source of inspiration and abundance, but their success comes with challenges. They work hard to market their salt to larger audiences and to attend out-of-town trade shows. Despite the limitations, they hope to grow and provide jobs for locals, all while remaining true to their location and product.
One grain in the big picture
Alaska Pure Sea Salt is more than just salt. The Micheners are a part of Alaska's local food movement, cultivating a sense of pride in the state's landscape and resources. They're also on a unique mission to spread salt awareness, putting Alaskan sea salt on the map with the help of enthusiastic chefs in the 49th state.
Rob Kinneen is one such chef and the founder of FORK Catering in Anchorage. He prioritizes using local ingredients, using the Sitka flake salt to finish plates as well as in desserts: alder smoked sea salt paired with chocolate, and a parsnip cake with spruce tip whipped cream and spruce tip sea salt.
"When you start talking about what Alaskan cuisine is, you look at our area and start thinking of the ingredients we have on hand, instead of ones we need to import," Kinneen said. "We're never going to be making a staple product and selling a billion pieces for 99 cents each. We're going to be making higher-end products — sea salts, syrups, jams, botanicals and products that use those ingredients."
Alaska Pure Sea Salt may be an artisanal product, but it's also inherently fundamental. "Salt is the most natural flavor enhancer there is," Darcy said. "It makes a big difference in flavoring your food, so if you're going to use salt, might as well use a good one."
The Micheners' Alaskan sea salt is free of anti-caking agents or bleaching — its character shines through in the flavor, texture and structure. It's caught the attention of local chefs and national restaurants, and its reach continues to spread.
"But for us, No. 1 is honoring the source and the place where we live," Jim said.
It happens one flake at a time.
Elissa Brown is an Anchorage freelance writer.