Caviar is a natural luxury food that is out of reach for many consumers because of its exorbitant prices.
It comes from the unfertilized eggs of sturgeon, and is rare, expensive, and considered a coveted item in the culinary world.
The word itself means that the eggs come from sturgeon, but other types of fish produce edible eggs and are commonly misnamed caviar, such as the fish eggs that are served in Japanese restaurants or salmon roe.
Beluga caviar, also referred to as “black gold,” is the rarest type and is the most expensive.
Many different factors determine the price of caviar, including the species of fish and its population, its age, and the preservation process.
These things affect how expensive the caviar will be.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive? (Top 9 Reasons)
Caviar has been consumed for many centuries.
Starting in the early 1800s, the eggs were harvested and eaten from fish other than sturgeon, but none ever reached the status of genuine caviar.
While virtually all types of sturgeon can be harvested for their eggs, Ossetra, beluga, and sevruga, the rarest types, have remained the most highly prized.
The rarity of an item can cause the price to increase even if the item itself does not change.
People have been consuming sturgeon caviar for hundreds of years.
Beginning in the 1800s, eggs were harvested from other fish species and consumed, but none have achieved the status of true caviar.
There are many different sturgeon species, and almost all of them can be harvested for their eggs.
However, sevruga, Ossetra, and beluga remain the highest in demand.
However, pollution eventually began killing the fish, dams destroyed their spawning grounds, and their numbers decreased exponentially.
Female sturgeon do not produce eggs until seven to twenty years old, depending on the type of sturgeon harvested.
Beluga and Caspian produce the rarest and most highly-prized caviar and are usually around 20 years old when they reach maturity and begin to produce the eggs used for caviar.
Female sturgeon only spawn once every three or four years, and as part of the commonly-used production process, they are killed when the eggs are gathered.
However, a German marine biologist has come up with a way to harvest the eggs without killing the fish by using a type of massage technique.
Unless and until this method of harvesting is implemented, prices for caviar are expected to remain astronomically expensive.
2. Protected Species
Sturgeon are officially listed as a protected species but are increasing in numbers in the wild.
Even so, they are still noted for being the most endangered species on earth.
At one time, these fish were over-harvested, and their numbers began to dwindle.
The Natural Resources Defense Council took measures to have them listed under the Endangered Species Act, to prevent their extinction, and the petition was granted.
The National Marine Fishery Service lists four different types of sturgeon as endangered: the New York Bight, the South Atlantic Sturgeon, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Carolina.
This drastically cuts down on the number of sturgeon that can be harvested each year, which adds to the cost for consumers because the roe has become even rarer.
3. Short Shelf Life
Caviar must be eaten soon after harvest or it will go bad, and this is another reason for its high expense.
It cannot hold its high quality for as long as other luxury edibles and requires an expensive, specialized treatment before its shelf life can be extended, which is not a long time.
The treatment during processing determines how long the product can be sustained before spoilage occurs.
Pasteurization plays a major role in how long caviar can last, as does the type of storage method that is used and whether or not it has been exposed to air.
After a container of caviar has been opened, it immediately begins the process of drying due to air contamination.
This causes it to lose its flavor and to take on an undesirable texture in as few as three to seven days.
Less rare types of caviar can keep longer without spoilage because their salt content acts as a natural preservative.
Pressed caviar has a longer shelf life, overall, and roe that is heavily salted and canned can last much longer.
The average shelf life of a pressurized can of caviar, however, is only four to six weeks at most.
When processed correctly, a sealed jar of caviar can last up to one year if it has been pasteurized.
However, the pasteurization process considerably decreases the quality of the flavor and texture.
Therefore, the fresh product is in much greater demand and is more expensive.
4. Cultivation Process
Caviar is currently extracted using an intricate, time-consuming manual harvesting process.
The eggs are carefully removed from the female fish.
Then, they are gently washed and hand-prepared to make sure their quality is not compromised.
A single female sturgeon can yield as many as two million eggs, which must be carefully analyzed so any inferior eggs can be removed and discarded.
Cultivating sturgeon for its caviar is an expensive process that increases the price of caviar tremendously.
The young sturgeon require continual feeding of a type of high-protein pellet every hour of every day.
As the fish increase in size, they are fed less frequently.
At this point, bacteria are added that remove any toxic metabolites.
Someone has to monitor the tanks at all times to ensure growth rates, which is also very expensive.
When the fish reach maturity, they are put into larger tanks.
Special pumps circulate this water continues to supply the fish with oxygen and remove any carbon dioxide that the fish produce.
Screens are put into place to remove fish waste.
The water also circulates through filters that contain filtering bacteria, which are fed by molasses.
Over the lifespan of each fish, this process lasts for around a decade or until the fish have gained up to 18% of their weight in eggs before the eggs are ready to be harvested.
At this point, the fish are around one meter in length.
There is no way to visually discern the sex of a fish, so a high-frequency ultrasound is used to make this determination and to check the development of the eggs that are inside each female.
The fish are sedated by exposure to carbon dioxide or various sedatives, or dentation by electric current, which stuns them.
After this point, the fish undergo small biopsies so that their eggs can be observed to detect their color and size.
There is no way to predict the color, which affects the price of the caviar.
For instance, golden caviar, known as “royal” caviar, occurs in only 1 in 1,000 of the Ossetra species of sturgeon.
When the fish have reached maturity and appear ready for harvest, tens of thousands of eggs will be found.
At seven years old, only about 20% of the sturgeon are ready for harvest.
The others are returned to the tank for another year before the process is performed again.
5. High Harvesting Costs
Like cultivation, the actual harvesting of the eggs is a time-consuming, intensive, and expensive process.
Consumers may be unaware of the fact that each tiny egg is harvested by hand.
Harvesting begins when the fish are stunned and a process called “stripping” is used to remove their ovaries.
This extracts the eggs through a tiny incision in the wall of the fish.
Another method involves performing a cesarean section on each fish that is then stitched up and returned to the tank to produce more roe.
As previously mentioned, the eggs can be massaged from the fish, but this is a newer process that is not yet widely utilized.
When extracted, the eggs are very fragile.
They are immediately chilled, and each egg is removed from the membrane by hand by gently rubbing them against a very fine mesh screen.
The membrane is removed and used for compost.
Cold water is used to rinse the eggs so that any impurities such as residue from the membrane or broken eggs can be removed.
Next, the eggs are examined visually, and any remaining broken eggs and impurities are removed with tweezers.
Then, the caviar eggs are placed into a colander of fine mesh to remove the water from them.
The caviar is carefully weighed and salted with exceptionally fine salt.
This brings out the flavor in the eggs and increases their shelf life.
At this stage, the caviar is referred to as “malossol” and contains less than 5% salt.
If the caviar is very high quality, it will contain less than 3% of the fine salt.
A higher salt content results in semi-preserved caviar, which has a less fresh flavor.
“Pauuisnaya” refers to caviar that contains more than 10% salt.
The increased salt forms a gelatinous cake and can be kept for up to three months.
To prepare for packing, the caviar is chilled for from six minutes to several hours before it is rinsed in cold water again.
Each of these steps involves labor, expensive equipment, and precision.
This adds to the cost of the caviar.
6. Market Value
The projected market value of caviar is very high, a prediction that has caused the price to increase for consumers.
In 2018, the international caviar market had a value of $276.2 million.
The market value of Ossetra caviar alone was $72.1 million.
One of the most popular and delicious varieties of caviar, Sevruga caviar, stood for almost 25% of caviar’s global revenue in 2018 alone.
More recently, less expensive caviar has become widely consumed by young connoisseurs and is in higher demand.
This has resulted in a market forecast expansion at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 9.2% from 2019 forward.
The caviar markets for frozen and preserved caviar are expected to increase over the same period.
Federal regulations governing imports of caviar also contribute to its value.
According to Market Research Future, by the year 2030, the caviar market is predicted to surpass $512.3 million in revenue at 5.98%.
7. Grading Of Salmon Roe
Although technically not classified as caviar, salmon eggs are substitutes for sturgeon caviar and are marketed as such.
Salmon caviar goes through a grading process that can determine its expense.
The higher the grade, the more expensive the caviar.
Both black caviar and red are available in different grades or qualities.
The size of the eggs and their firmness have an impact on the level of the grade they achieve, as well as the size and maturity.
If salmon roe is not harvested at the exact moment between being premature, but not overmatured, it will yield formless, weak grains and a low grade.
However, if harvested at precisely the right time, the grade can be the highest of all. It is characterized by firm eggs that are not chewy or rubbery and have a full-bodied palate.
Overmatured eggs have a watery taste and chewy, very thick shells.
The time of the harvest alone does not determine the highest grade of salmon caviar.
The time spent processing and curing the roe influences the flavor of the caviar, its grade, and finally, its price.
The faster the caviar skeins are taken from the fish, the better the resulting product, including greater firmness.
The specialists who cure the eggs must take extra caution not to under or over salt the roe while it is in the saltwater brine, which is the last and most important step in the production process.
The softer and more salty roe is given a lower grade, while the brightest, perfectly salted, and ripened caviar are given the highest grades and prices.
8. Grading Of Sturgeon Caviar
The process of sturgeon has a completely different criterion than that of salmon.
Limitations must be exercised because the sturgeon is a protected species.
Special harvesting methods must be used, while others are forbidden.
A lot of the expense of the caviar depends more on the specific rare species of fish that is being harvested as well as its age than anything else.
Since sturgeon caviar can no longer be harvested in the wild, it is simpler to ensure that the caviar will be harvested in its best condition.
Therefore, different processing steps are taken during the grading process.
Sturgeon can spawn many times during their life spans, unlike salmon, and every time a sturgeon spawns, the quality of its roe increases.
In other words, the second spawning of a sturgeon will yield caviar that is firmer and larger than the first time it spawned.
Eggs can be harvested from sturgeon many times, unlike salmon.
The more mature sturgeon will naturally be assigned higher quality rankings or grads.
The color of the roe is another factor that affects the grading, and therefore, the grade and expense for the consumer.
Lighter colored roe costs more than dark caviar, although there is no way to predict the color of a given fish’s yield.
The size of the eggs is also a determining factor in the grading decisions.
It affects everything from the “finish” to the mouth feel.
Larger eggs contain more fluid than the smaller ones and are less strongly flavored.
This is a desirable quality for many, but caviar purists prefer the smaller eggs, which are higher in price and stronger in flavor.
Grading is also affected by the texture of the roe.
Qualities such as the “pop” of each bead of caviar and its firmness have much to do with the degree of grading that it is assigned.
Most connoisseurs will select firmer roe with a more noticeable pop.
Of course, the flavor is probably the most important aspect of grading.
The flavors can vary widely from one species to the next.
A novice caviar consumer might find it difficult to distinguish the subtle flavors of caviar.
However, experts who are educated in the nuances of caviar flavor profiles recognize higher grades, which tend to have more subtle and complex flavors and are considered to be well-balanced.
Terms similar to those used to describe fine wine are used in conveying the grading qualities of caviar flavors.
Nutty, buttery, briny, and creamy are all terms that describe the taste.
Expert tasters often describe tasting smoke, port wine or minerals, and other unusual flavors.
The different combinations of flavors will heavily affect the grading and, therefore, the price of the caviar.
The finish of caviar also helps determine whether it gets high or low grades.
However, experts note a particularly flavored finish inside the mouth and an effervescent “perfume” in the nostrils and mouth.
The finish is usually characterized in terms of the caviar’s finish, such as “lingering” or “velvety” or “smooth” or “long.”
These terms usually characterize high-quality caviar that has a high grade, and therefore, a higher price.
Color And Size
A final factor for consideration is the color of the roe.
This is an important element used to describe the caviar and helps distinguish grades, types, and individual fish.
The Petrossian measure of grade uses color to indicate higher quality roe along with other factors, such as taste, texture, and size.
Each egg’s size has an impact on the quality of the caviar, from the texture to the final lingering taste, or “finish.”
The largest eggs contain more liquid in them.
Larger roe is usually preferred over smaller eggs.
However, size is but one of many parts that helps determine the grade.
In some instances, the biggest roe doesn’t always designate the best.
9. Sourcing And Popularity
The ages-old rule of supply and demand has a lot to do with why caviar is so expensive.
Even though caviar is an endangered species, growing the fish is an expensive and years-long process, and the practice is heavily regulated, the product is still in high demand.
Caviar has long been considered a status symbol because of its associations with royalty, movie stars, and billionaires.
Its unique taste is a highly-coveted commodity, and people are willing to pay what it takes to obtain it.
While caviar farming has helped meet the demand for the roe, more creative ways to use it have also been developed, so the demand has grown even more.
Malossol beluga sturgeon caviar is arguably the most expensive caviar on earth.
Its rarity, expensive processing, and reputation as the largest freshwater fish on the planet make it an exceptionally expensive fish to raise, and it is seldom seen in the wild.
A single kilogram is worth around $34,500.
While the price tag can be a deterrent, it can also be more attractive to those who can afford it.
The increased demand for caviar also has to do with its popularity in restaurants and with home chefs.
It has become an ingredient rather than a stand-alone delicacy and is used in recipes ranging from potato pancakes to omelets.
Some of the most famous chefs in the world, such as Wolfgang Puck and Anthony Bourdain, have introduced caviar to a segment of society who might not try it otherwise.
Massive ad campaigns in gourmet magazines such as Food and Wine and on television have also increased the demand for caviar.
While once a luxurious treat for the rich and famous, today it is enjoyed by a more mainstream demographic.