Big Sur Salts began in a beer bottle.
In those years, in the mid-2010s, Carlo Overhulser visited Big Sur frequently from his home in Monterey. He’d sit on the cliffs, drink a beer, and watch the waves crash. It was cathartic, a thinking spot in a place so beautiful he refers to it as the ninth wonder of the world.
Up on the rocks that day, he was far enough from the surging sea to stay dry—until he wasn’t. “This big wave came barreling down the canyon and it just nailed me. It completely ruined the beer,” he laughs.
So he dumped out the dregs, refilled the bottle with a little salt water, and took it home to add to his collection of trinkets and mementos. A month or two later, he remembered it was there. The ocean water had evaporated leaving small crystals in its place. It was the best salt he’d ever tasted in his life.
Overhulser knew nothing about producing salt; he was selling phones in an AT&T store when he made his accidental discovery. Six years later he’s widely considered one of the best craft salters around with a product that one chef called "saltier than anyone else's in the world."
Big Sur Salts is the only business from Cambria to San Francisco that’s legally allowed to harvest the Pacific Ocean for commercial purposes. The water he collects from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is filtered nine times to remove all impurities then evaporated, leaving behind flakes of pure sea salt.
Overhulser also operates six natural salt ponds in the cliffs of Big Sur.
“It’s the same thing Native Americans were doing for centuries,” he explains. By studying the process of evaporation and identifying the algae growing in the ponds and the color of the water, he got the science down. “I could literally go down there with you right now and say, ‘okay, it’s going to be a month and a half before you see salt.’”
The base of each Big Sur Salt is Pico Blanco, a bright white crystal named for the limestone Pico Blanco Mountain in Big Sur’s Santa Lucia Range. All of Overhulser’s blended salts are named for the region’s natural features. Visually, each jar is a tiny coastal landscape, its ingredients—all collected wild or obtained from local farms—evoking the region’s chaparral hills, riparian woodlands, and golden beaches.
“I would go camping at a specific campground and look around. What colors do I see? What do I absorb from this experience? I want to bring people here,” he says.
In the Santa Lucia blend, Overhulser uses red wine from the Santa Lucia Highlands to infuse the salt with a dark fruit flavor profile that is great for finishing meat, grilled mushrooms, soft cheeses, and yogurt. “The blend is different every year because I use different wines from different wineries,” he explains.
The Castrochill blend combines dehydrated artichokes from Pezzini Farms in nearby Castroville, the “artichoke center of the world,” with tart lemon and cooling cucumber. “It really goes on so many things: salads and meat and just crackers and cheese. I’ve made butter with it, put it on eggs. Seafood it’s really good on, too.”
The Old Coast Salt was the trickiest for Overhulser to get right. In the beginning, he threw out more than he kept. Now it’s a bestseller. The name refers to Big Sur’s Old Coast Road, the Beatnik Byway of the 1960s, where Overhulser was first inspired to create a salt blend with wild sage. To the salt and sage he adds dehydrated orange zest, leek, and thyme for a well balanced condiment that works beautifully on pork chops, chicken wings, fish and, unexpectedly, French fries.
“All of the salts are extremely unique, extremely tied to this area,” says Overhulser, from the sea water to the foraged herbs to the produce grown by local farmers. But he doesn’t just take from this place of serene beauty, he gives back too. Some of the profits from the sale of his salts go to organizations protecting Big Sur for future generations.
“I’ve always loved Big Sur, ever since the first time I saw it,” Overhulser says. His salts are love letters that have transformed his early infatuation into a deep, everlasting devotion to an unparalleled coastline.