Back in antiquity, salt was revered. Romans were even given a set monetary allowance every month in order to buy salt, as it was considered a necessary commodity. This is actually where we get the modern English word ‘Salary’ from:
Nowadays, we take this item for granted. No-one really gasps in awe at the humble salt shaker on the table any more. No one questions how it arrives in our kitchen, we simply accept that it’s there. And when no-one questions how it arrives there, then there’s room for producers to cut corners, or at the very least, get lazy.
It’s a similar story across industries. We know this same story in the beer world: it’s why the idea of craft beer took off in the first place. It’s why when head chef and BRUS co-founder, Christian Gadient first met Saltverk: an Icelandic company making salt straight from the sea, harvested using only the geo-thermal energy from the Icelandic geysers, he paid attention. While their original meeting was years ago, when Christian was head chef in the Michelin star restaurant, Marchal in Copenhagen – today we’re making two beers with them in our BRUS brewery, collaborating in a totally new way for us both: They’ve never made a beer with their salt before, and we’ve never collaborated outside the beverage industry before.
We sat down with Björn Steinar Jónsson, the founder, and Gísli Grímsson to hear more about Saltverk came to be.
”8 years ago, in the Westfjords of Iceland, is where we made our first test batch. And it took 7 days to make 200 grams of salt” Says Björn.
”For reference, we sell our salt in units of 250 grams, so it wasn’t even a single unit of salt over seven days” Gísli chimes in. But the volume of the harvest wasn’t what Björn testing for initially. This wasn’t about grabbing an easy-to-reach product, as rich as the resources are around Iceland. The real test was to use sustainable geo-thermal energy, and only that energy, to produce it. This would be a good time to mention that while both Björn and Gísli are heavily involved in the food and drink in industry, their academic background is as Engineers. It becomes apparent that it’s precisely this combination of knowledge and expertise that has made Saltverk possible.
B: ”We built this step by step, as a company, but also literally. We had to build the whole factory from the ground up too”
G: ”Yeah, it wasn’t exactly possible to walk into a shop and ask for spare parts for naturally extracting salt with geo-thermal energy. There wasn’t even a structure for it. It involved a lot of planning, building and a lot of trial and error.”
When finding a way forward, it was also important not to strive for a uniform product either. Even though it was about quality, part of that quality meant allowing for the natural variation of salt harvests. Its never the same time and time again, and nor would they want it to be.
B ”We could hire someone that could chemically alter each batch to ensure it tastes exactly the same. But we really don’t want to do that, it’s part of the charm of making it this way”
Another common theme across industries is rediscovering old techniques that were in place long ago, but have since been replaced with faster, cheaper models for mass production. The same is the case for harvesting salt in Iceland:
B: ”Back when I started, there was no production of salt in Iceland at all. But when I was researching locations, I discovered that 250 years ago a Danish king had actually established a salt production, and using geo-thermal energy as well, so at one point long ago there was some sort of production”
Even though there are many challenges to starting you’re own production and being accountable for everything from harvest to finished product, it’s something Björn was all too happy to take on, having worked in jobs before that had no project-based goals or tangible meaning, other than putting numbers together.
B: ”I used to work for IBM, and my role was to collect reports to hand over to higher officials. I worked there for a year and still had no idea what those numbers were for, or what they meant. I was just a cog in the wheel, and it was the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Gísli came on board 4 years ago, and is connected to Björn by the restaurant that they own, SKÁL, together with the Head Chef of the place, Gísli Matthías Auðunsson. Having an inside perspective of the industry meant that when Saltverk was established, it became a principle to have direct relationships to the all the places buying their salt, including Christian Gadient, who still is using their salt for the fermented fries in the BRUS kitchen, as well as other dishes on the menu. Today though, we branched out further, and used the salt in the brewery. One beer is an Imperial Lava Salted Caramel Chocolate Stout using Saltverk’s Lava salt, made using activated charcoal. The other is a Gose with Lemon, and Saltverks Arctic Thyme Salt.
We spent the whole day brewing together, with BRUS head brewer, Tom Pyke also guiding the guys through the process.
G: ”I’ve never been in a brewery before, and while I thought I had an idea of how beer is made, I had no idea about all the detailed stages a beer must go through. Its been really cool to see”
We’ll tell you much more about these beers and how they turned out later on. For now, we wanted to introduce craft by a different aspect, and why despite our different areas, the ethos remains the same: Control and autonomy over the process, independence, transparency, and quality ingredients are still paramount.