If you've ever considered purchasing caviar, you already know that the price tag can be very high. So, why is caviar so expensive, and why do the prices vary so much?
Why Is Caviar Expensive?
This age-old question actually wasn't always relevant. Caviar used to be a nutrient-rich food eaten mostly by Eastern European peasants, so how did it evolve into a delicacy enjoyed by Kings?
Well, in-short, fine caviar became expensive due to the rarity of the species and the delicate nature of processing, handling, and storing. It was originally abundant and easily available to the masses but once Tzars and Kings discovered the delicious rich flavor and requested the salted eggs of the rarest, most sought-after sturgeons be served on their tables, the popularity rose and supply fell. Salt-curing became common to preserve the caviar on its journey to the payer, and the classic accompaniments like onion and egg were added to mask any strong flavors caused by lack of refrigeration. With modern advancements in proper handling, storage and temperature control, by the 20th century, caviar was more popular than ever and many sturgeon species were facing extreme endangerment. For this reason, thankfully, most sturgeon caviar is now sustainably farmed and highly regulated by the local and federal government to ensure wild populations come back.
Factors That Affect Pricing
There are many factors to be considered when pricing caviar, but in general, caviar is priced out based on these factors:
- Length of Maturation Process
- Harvesting/Manufacturing Process
To help you gain a broader understanding of the process, let's take a closer look at each one.
In order to be classified as true caviar, the roe must come from a sturgeon. Since this already limited triassic species is generally endangered due to over-fishing, the eggs are very rare. This scarcity is what helps keep the prices high (as we'll discuss later on in the Sourcing section).
Sturgeon caviar has been a popular delicacy among the more modern-day elite since the late 1800s. Modern advancements in refrigeration and shipping has allowed for even more caviar to be consumed world-wide. This ever-increasing demand has kept the sturgeon population low, as fishermen continue to harvest the precious eggs for sale to the highest bidder.
There are other types of salted fish eggs available, but these are classified as roe rather than true caviar. If you have your heart set on the premier product, like the offerings available through CRU Caviar, you can expect to pay higher prices.
Length of Maturation Process
It takes time for any creature to reach reproductive age, and fish are no exception. While a single sturgeon can produce millions of eggs at once, relatively few of those eggs will survive to maturity. This is especially true of wild sturgeon, which have to contend with the dangers of the natural environment.
You might assume that caviar from a farmed sturgeon is much easier and therefore cheaper than wild-caught but farming sturgeon is actually a very expensive, delicate, and time-consuming process. It could take as long as two decades for a female to start producing the highest quality roe, which means the farmers usually have to wait many years before they actually turn a profit.
Other roe-producing fish (such as trout and salmon) haver shorter life spans and take less time to replenish their populations, even when living in the wild. That's another reason why true caviar is more expensive than non-sturgeon versions.
Once the sturgeon have reached maturity and begun producing eggs, the real work begins. First, the roe needs to be harvested. The harvester typically kills the fish in order to obtain the eggs, which means each specimen is only good for a single reproductive cycle. While there are no-kill harvesting methods available, this type of caviar is considered inferior in quality, so the process doesn't currently have much of a following.
Harvesting caviar is a time-consuming process. Since machinery would damage the eggs, every step must be done by expert hand. When the precious eggs have been procured, they have to be washed and salt cured before they're inspected for quality. The environment needs to be completely sterile, because the roe is very sensitive to contaminants, especially at this stage. The farms and handlers of caviar must also partake in costly required government inspections and acquire permits to handle and sell sturgeon caviar.
When producing fine caviar, the goal is to preserve the flavor while ensuring that the finished product has a decent shelf life. This is a fine line to walk, and that delicate balance is reflected in the price.
Caviar is graded on a basic 1 & 2 number scale for essentially fine/great caviar vs. OK caviar, but there are many factors that determine which seller-coined term of excellence or grade the caviar will receive.
Merchants use this system to rate the product based on the following criteria:
The eggs may be graded during the initial inspection, before the curing process takes place. In order to achieve Grade 1 (or A-Grade), the roe needs to conform to the ideal standards for its particular species. This visual test gives the inspectors the information they need to move on to the next step. When a caviar is marked as Grade 2, or B-Grade, the beads tend to be softer, wetter, smaller, lacking or "off" flavor, or some combination of the three.
The roe is inspected again once the curing and aging processes have taken place. If the caviar has been Malossol cured ("Malossol" translates into "little salt"), it will get a higher price tag than a product that's been overly salted or treated with other preservatives.
To receive the highest grade, the caviar must have a firm texture, large grains that have remained fully intact, lustrous color, and an appealing smell and flavor. When the pearls are particularly large, or if they come in a rare shade for their species, the package may carry the "Imperial" or "Supreme" label.
If the roe is average to slightly above-average in terms of quality, it will be marked as "Royal" or "Classic." This is still considered to be Grade 1.
Meanwhile, Grade 2 product with smaller grains and a slightly inferior appearance may be labeled as "Select" caviar. This labeling is ambiguous though due to grading terms and choices being determined by the seller. Make sure you are getting your caviar from a trusted, reputable source that isn't vague about species or the origin of the farm.
The last major deciding factor concerns where the caviar comes from + supply and demand. As you can see, it can take quite a while to procure a supply of caviar. At the same time, demand for the product has never really slacked off since it first became popular. On the contrary, its popularity continues to grow. This combination of low supply and high demand is what keeps the price from dropping. However, this concept gets more complicated with the fact that there are more caviar farms than ever. Procuring wild caviar is difficult but farming caviar takes longer due to long fish maturation periods and the expensive costs involved with a farm. These farms are also now more highly regulated with more competition in best practices, making for the highest quality caviar. This also increases supply and sustainability, helping to even out the price some, making it more accessible to more people than ever before.
Are There Cheaper Caviar Options Available?
As we've mentioned, roe harvested from fish other than sturgeon may carry lower price tags. The price drops even further if the roe is laden with salt and other preservatives.
If you want to sample true caviar without dropping a bundle, look for Hackleback (shovelnose) caviar. These pearls are harvested from the only commercially fished wild American sturgeon, which has a relatively fast growth rate and is most heavily populated throughout the Missouri and Mississippi river basins. The populations are heavily regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in each state, ensuring sustainability and aiding to prevent poaching. The eggs are small and firm, with the taste and quality you would expect from wild Sturgeon.
The next value option for high-quality sturgeon caviar would be Siberian (Acipenser baerii) sturgeon. The eggs are slightly smaller than Beluga or Osetra but the flavor is creamy, briny, and buttery, all without the higher price tag due to Siberian's faster maturation. While Osetra can take 10 to 20 years to mature, Siberian only takes about 5-7 years.
Caviar may never be cheap, but once you understand the large investment of time and money to farm sturgeon caviar, along with the intricacies of the harvesting and grading processes, the high cost begins to make sense. What's more, with the rise of sturgeon farming and the current protections that are being afforded to wild species, even the highest-quality product is becoming more accessible. However, there will always be a wide range of prices depending on the many factors considered in this article.