GRAINS OF TRUTH

WITH A CUS­TOM- MADE VAC­UUM CHAM­BER AND BUCK­ETS OF IN­GE­NU­ITY, GREG BEAT­TIE TURNS SEA­WA­TER FROM THE HAU­RAKI GULF INTO NEW ZEALAND’S FIRST TRULY AR­TI­SANAL SEA SALT

NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS ALICE NEVILLE PHO­TOS MANJA WACHSMUTH

Greg Beat­tie in­vented a vac­uum cham­ber to make salt from sea­wa­ter gath­ered at the beach

OVER THE PAST few years, beach­go­ers vis­it­ing the Marae­tai-Cleve­don coast south of Auck­land might have chanced upon Greg Beat­tie col­lect­ing sea­wa­ter – first by the buck­et­ful, then the tank load.

“I got quite a few re­ac­tions,” says Greg of those early days. “A guy came up to me and said, ‘I bet you’ve got a great big fish tank at home, haven’t you?’ An­other said, ‘You can get wa­ter out of the tap, you know.’”

The 38-year-old was in fact ex­per­i­ment­ing with mak­ing his own sea salt which, af­ter some tena­cious trial and error, he has now turned into a busi­ness, Hau­raki Salt, named for the gulf that borders our big­gest city. The idea came to him dur­ing a visit to a farm­ers’ mar­ket. “I was watch­ing a guy do­ing cook­ing demon­stra­tions us­ing lo­cal pro­duce,” Greg re­calls. “He pre­sented it with great gusto as the most lo­cal, fresh plate of food you could ever find. Then he reached un­der his bench and pulled out a packet of sea salt from Eng­land and sprin­kled it all over the top.

“I was prob­a­bly the only one who thought, ‘ That’s not lo­cal.’ Sud­denly the idea was, ‘Why isn’t any­one mak­ing a lo­cal sea salt?’ It seems so ob­vi­ous, but for some rea­son, in New Zealand, sea salt was left out of the ar­ti­san move­ment.”

A land­scape gar­dener by trade, Greg had been search­ing for a busi­ness idea for some time. When he was just 17, some gar­den­ing clients ad­vised him to find a prod­uct-based busi­ness, so he wouldn’t for­ever be “trad­ing hours for dol­lars”.

The idea stayed with him for the next 15 years, but it wasn’t un­til a pe­riod of ill health, dur­ing which he was holed up at home alone for weeks, that he de­cided to do some­thing about it.

“I was self-em­ployed, so af­ter the first cou­ple of weeks the money started run­ning out,” Greg says. “I re­al­ized I was vul­ner­a­ble to this hap­pen­ing again and I re­mem­bered that con­ver­sa­tion 15 years be­fore. I re­al­ized I had to have a self-sus­tain­ing busi­ness that could po­ten­tially work without me, so what I re­ally needed was a con­sum­able prod­uct.

“I con­sid­ered just about ev­ery­thing from grow­ing plants to can­dle­mak­ing to soap-mak­ing to greet­ing cards,” he says. “I had al­most noth­ing for start-up costs, which was a bit re­strict­ing.”

The idea was put to the back of his mind un­til a year or so later, and that fate­ful trip to the mar­ket. He be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing – grab­bing a buck­et­ful of wa­ter from the beach on his way home from the mar­ket and Googling, ‘How do you make sea salt’.

The first search re­sult sug­gested boil­ing sea­wa­ter un­til it evap­o­rates. “I didn’t re­al­ize how long it would take but late that night I was even­tu­ally left with a white, sludgy, grainy-look­ing salt. It had sand and twigs in it, but it tasted like salt. From that point on I thought, ‘Aha, this is my prod­uct; this is the one that I’m go­ing to see through.’”

See it through he did, al­though it was far from easy. “There are so few salt mak­ers around the world, and there’s no in­for­ma­tion – ev­ery­one makes salt in a slightly dif­fer­ent way.”

‘ Sud­denly the idea was, “Why isn’t any­one mak­ing a lo­cal sea salt?” It seems so ob­vi­ous, but for some rea­son, in New Zealand, sea salt was left out of the ar­ti­san move­ment’

He be­gan by sim­ply boil­ing sea­wa­ter over gas. “Ev­ery night af­ter work I’d put a pot of salt wa­ter on to boil. I kept get­ting big­ger and big­ger pots. Even­tu­ally I got up to a 100-litre pot, but the prob­lem was it would take 10 hours to re­duce by 50 per cent.”

The process was us­ing a lot of LPG, which was ex­pen­sive. “It dawned on me that the rea­son there are no ar­ti­san salt mak­ers in New Zealand is be­cause it’s just not eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.”

Greg was close to throw­ing in the towel when his twin brother Jono, a chef who runs Tex­ture Cater­ing, tried some. “He said, ‘Wow. My cus­tomers would love this – what a great story, a lo­cal salt made by my brother.’ If it wasn’t for that mo­ment, I prob­a­bly would’ve given up.”

Greg knew the key to mak­ing his salt a vi­able busi­ness was to speed up the rate of evap­o­ra­tion. He found the so­lu­tion via the in­dus­trial meth­ods used to make road salt in the US, plus YouTube clips of high­school stu­dents evap­o­rat­ing wa­ter un­der vac­uum pres­sure.

Af­ter a se­ries of re­jec­tions from peo­ple who “thought I was nuts”, Greg found a pump spe­cial­ist, an elec­tri­cian and an en­gi­neer will­ing to help him, and im­ported a pump from Italy. “It cost a for­tune and there were no guar­an­tees it was go­ing to work, so it was a huge risk.”

His first at­tempt to use it re­sulted in wa­ter gush­ing down the drive­way and some very con­cerned looks from his neigh­bours in sub­ur­ban High­land Park, east Auck­land. But, af­ter an­other two years of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, cal­cu­la­tions and ob­ses­sive record-keep­ing, Greg ended up with a cus­tom-built vac­uum cham­ber – an im­pres­sive ef­fort for a gar­dener who says he was “very av­er­age” at science and maths.

He has worked out how to tweak the salt to change its flavour, re­mov­ing the cal­cium and some of the mag­ne­sium to make it cleaner on the palate, with no bit­ter af­ter­taste. “Be­ing able to re­move the mag­ne­sium was a rev­e­la­tion,” he says. “I think it’s made this salt on a par with the best salts in the world.”

Since launch­ing his prod­uct, Greg has col­lab­o­rated with fel­low Auck­land ar­ti­san pro­ducer Line Hart of Line’s Knæk­brød on a rose­mary and sea salt cracker­bread. “It’s been a fan­tas­tic suc­cess – it’s her most pop­u­lar va­ri­ety,” he says.

The cracker­bread won gold in the Out­stand­ing NZ Food Pro­ducer Awards this year, while Hau­raki Salt was awarded sil­ver. Greg has also worked with Devon­port Choco­lates, sup­ply­ing salt for their caramel choco­lates, and would love to en­gage in fur­ther col­lab­o­ra­tions.

He’s of­ten asked if he’s al­lowed to take wa­ter from the sea, but says the coun­cil has okayed it, pro­vided he doesn’t take enough to af­fect the tides. “If you think about it, I’m do­ing my part for ris­ing sea lev­els.”

With its retro-in­spired pack­ag­ing, Hau­raki Salt is now on the shelves of re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing Auck­land’s Farro Fresh. It’s also on the ta­bles at the Haller­tau brew­ery restau­rant in River­head, west of Auck­land, at the New Zealand Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton DC and at Kiwi chef Matt Lam­bert’s Miche­lin-starred New York eatery The Mus­ket Room.

Greg is still work­ing full time at his gar­den­ing busi­ness but hopes to ded­i­cate him­self fully to Hau­raki Salt one day. “There’s a lot more I can do – I’ve only scratched the sur­face,” he says. “I want Hau­raki Salt to be­come a house­hold name.”

THIS PAGE, CLOCK­WISE: Greg Beat­tie col­lect­ing sea wa­ter; hand- har­vest­ing sea- salt flakes from the pan; stor­age tanks hold evap­o­rated wa­ter; a sam­ple of sea wa­ter is col­lected us­ing a re­frac­tome­ter, which mea­sures salin­ity lev­els.

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