Imagine that you’re an alien who just landed on earth and you’re interested in human cuisine. How shocked would you be to discover that one of the most expensive foods on the planet is a tin of fish eggs?
Today, we’re going to explore why beluga caviar is so expensive. Beluga caviar is so expensive because of the scarcity of the beluga sturgeon, the time it takes to be produced, the grading process, and supply and demand. Beluga caviar is pricey due to a combination of factors, but they all result in one thing: rarity.
Of course, it’s going to take a lot more than a single paragraph to explain why beluga caviar is so much more expensive than many other types of food. We’ll explore each of these factors in-depth to give you a better idea of why caviar is so expensive and how beluga caviar can retail for up to $25,000 per kilogram.
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Beluga Caviar Price
Why is caviar so expensive? There are many factors that go into determining the price of caviar, and we’re going to explore them one by one so you can get a better idea of why this delicacy is so pricey.
How much is Beluga Caviar? The price of Beluga Caviar can range anywhere from $7,000 to $25,000 per kilogram. There are many reasons for this high cost, such as its rarity and difficulty to harvest. Beluga caviar is one of the most expensive foods in the world.
Many factors can determine caviar’s cost, and that doesn’t only apply to beluga. Most caviars are pricey and considered luxurious food items, even those in lower quality levels. Here’s a summary of the factors that go into determining the price of beluga caviar:
- Fish type and scarcity,
- The caviar maturation process,
- How caviar is harvested,
- The grading process,
- Caviar’s supply and demand,
What is the most expensive caviar? The most expensive caviar is Almas. Almas caviar costs approximately $35,000 per kilogram or $18,000 per pound. Almas caviar comes from wild albino beluga sturgeon that is only found off the coast of Iran in the south Caspian Sea.
This kind of rarity is often the answer to “why is caviar expensive?” but it can also determine the flavor and aroma of the roe. It makes sense to charge more for something so unique, but people can’t help but wonder – is caviar expensive because of other reasons, too? This could be up for debate, as brands and demand can often interfere with the cost.
Fish Type and Scarcity
The first thing to consider when it comes to the price of beluga caviar is the source, known as the beluga (not the whale), or the beluga sturgeon. Even non-beluga sturgeon are growing rarer and rarer in the wild, and this is largely influenced by the worldwide demand for fine caviar.
Keep in mind that sturgeon caviar wasn’t always the expensive delicacy it is today. It took until the 1800s in Russia for people to start considering this a luxury meal. Before the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was very little demand for beluga caviar, and the species was in a much better place conservation-wise.
Fishermen in the region used to be of a relatively low class, and the ability to harvest beluga sturgeon for one of the priciest meals on earth was too good for them to pass up. After all, fishermen need to feed their families too, even if it’s at the expense of an ocean-going creature.
Compared to other groups of marine animal species, the sturgeon is seen as the most endangered by multiple conservation societies. This includes the beluga sturgeon, but also 17 other varieties of sturgeon, meaning that we may one day never see these bony fish in the water again.
While we are working to rebuild sturgeon populations and farm caviar more sustainably, these fish still haven’t recovered from the extreme overfishing that the species experienced during the past 200 years. Here are some of the other factors that have led to the scarcity of sturgeon:
- Water pollution,
- Waterways being rerouted for the industry.
Ironically, the very efforts that are in place to reduce the scarcity of caviar are driving up the cost to the point that it’s nearly impossible to get your hands on it, even if you have the money for it. For example, the USA has banned the importation of Beluga caviar since 2005.
One day, if these efforts pan out, caviar may be more affordable and available in large enough numbers for everyone to enjoy it. Until then, learning why caviar is expensive can lead to more conscious food choices and alternatives that could taste similarly, if not the same.
The Caviar Maturation Process
Another crucial difference between beluga sturgeon and other types of fish is that they take far longer to mature. This is because this species of bony fish is relatively long-lived, coinciding with a longer period of time between the fish reaching maturity, with generations ranging between eight and twenty years long.
Even though beluga sturgeon lay millions of eggs per clutch, only a few of the fish spawning from these eggs will survive and become juveniles. Even fewer of those fish will reach maturity, which leads to beluga caviar being much rarer than other types of roe.
Compared to other fish species that are prized for their roe production, like salmon, bowfin, and trout, the beluga sturgeon takes about three times longer to reach full maturity. Naturally, this means that it takes longer to farm their caviar, making it a much more scarce and expensive commodity in the process.
Even compared to other types of sturgeon, the beluga takes longer to reach sexual maturity so the eggs can be harvested. The sevruga, Siberian, ossetra, and Kaluga sturgeon all reach sexual maturity sooner than the beluga. The only sturgeon species that has a comparable maturation time is the white sturgeon.
Some fish can even take several decades to reach sexual maturity and start producing their prized eggs, including the beluga sturgeon. This puts immense financial pressure on the farmers and fishers producing caviar, as their entire business model is based on this high-stakes situation.
Another issue is that the caviar has to be harvested at the right time or it can become useless and inedible, creating even more financial pressure on the farmers. Due to these factors, the people who gather beluga caviar have to be well-trained and equally well-paid due to the mastery of their craft.
How Caviar is Harvested
The beluga caviar price often reflects the skills of the harvesters, too; as mentioned, people who know how to do this go through intense training and get paid a lot to provide a high-quality product.
Beluga caviar takes a lot of skill to harvest once the fish has reached maturity. Harvesting it includes the following steps:
- The fish reaches maturity.
- A biopsy is performed on the fish.
- The fish is cleaned and washed.
- The caviar is harvested from the fish.
- The caviar is screened for quality.
- The caviar is washed and cleaned.
- The caviar is graded.
- The caviar is packaged.
The main thing that contributes to the difficulty of the harvesting process is that the sturgeon has to be killed to harvest the caviar. After spending decades raising a beluga sturgeon, it has to be killed and the process has to be started again from scratch so that the caviar can be harvested.
While more and more no-kill harvesting methods are appearing, they typically don’t offer the same quality of caviar. The few no-kill methods that produce high-quality caviar are either experimental or require employees that are even more highly trained than typical caviar harvesters.
Whether a sturgeon is killed or not killed during the harvesting process, it requires immense care and quite a bit of time for the caviar to be harvested properly. After all, the last thing that a caviar farm can afford is to damage the delicate fish eggs that they’ve been waiting for years to harvest.
Further increasing the cost is the fact that automated techniques are never used to harvest beluga caviar. Every time you see a tin of beluga caviar, you should know that it has been carefully plucked from the sturgeon’s ovaries by hand. Sterility is also prized in the caviar-making process, as the eggs are extremely vulnerable after being harvested.
Finally, the caviar has to be cured and packaged, and this requires a fine balance to be struck between flavor and presentation. The more salt that is added to caviar, the more that the already delicate flavor is diminished, so a lot of work goes into packaging beluga caviar properly.
The Grading Process
While beluga caviar is the most expensive type of caviar, it has to be graded like any other kind of roe. As you’d expect, no two eggs are identical, and slight differences in the caviar can affect its grade, even if it comes from the most prized sturgeon in existence.
The grade of your beluga caviar depends on how it looks, including color, size, and uniformity. A batch of caviar should be similar in size and color if you want it to attain an above-average grade. High-end caviars like beluga are also graded according to their flavor profile.
Most of the time, the grading process occurs before the caviar is salted, as the producers don’t want to add anything that will alter the roe’s flavor. Expensive beluga caviar is marked as either Grade 1 or A-Grade, which is the best grade that any caviar could possibly attain.
Beluga caviar can also be Grade 2 or B-Grade, meaning that it didn’t quite make the cut as an A-Grade product. Some of the factors that disqualify beluga caviar from the higher grades include having smaller grains, and they’re typically less firm. Another factor that will lower the grade of high-end caviar is too much wetness.
Keep in mind that each caviar producer uses different terminology in their product lines, with low-end caviar receiving titles like “Select.” High-end beluga caviar will typically be marketed as “Imperial.” Beluga caviar, in specific, also has its own grading system that used to be used when it was harvested in the wild.
This system has three grades, 0, 00, or 000. 0 is reserved for smaller eggs that have darker colors while 000 is used for the largest caviar with the lightest color. As you’d expect 00 is a middle-ground reserved for medium-sized eggs with colors that aren’t too dark or too light. Also note that 0 is the lowest quality available while 000 is the highest possible.
All of this is a very clear reason why beluga caviar so expensive, and it reflects the cost of the roe in more ways than one. When the methods for extraction, rarity, and scarcity are revealed, it’s easy to understand the competitive prices in the caviar world.
Caviar’s Supply and Demand
Of course, the basic economic principle of supply and demand will always be the factor that influences the price of beluga caviar. The huge amount of work that goes into harvesting this kind of caviar combined with its rarity means that there is a much smaller supply of it compared to other foodstuffs.
The demand for caviar has been consistently high since the Imperial Russian family started consuming the delicacy in the late 1800s. Since beluga caviar is seen as a status symbol, most people want to eat it so they can find out what all the hype is about, making it even harder to find.
As mentioned, there’s also a type of caviar called Almas that comes from Iran, straight from the Beluga from the uncontaminated waters of the Caspian Sea. This also indicates that Persians consumed caviar in their time, way before the Russian nobles even got a taste. Of course, the history of the stuff is long – which is another potential reason for a high beluga caviar price.
On the other hand, you have dedicated caviar eaters with deep pockets that are willing to spend money to appreciate this fine food. All of this comes together to result in a much higher amount of demand than there is supply to fulfill that demand, raising the price of beluga caviar considerably.
It doesn’t help that other kinds of roe aren’t even comparable to beluga caviar. While you may expect them to be relatively similar, other roe lacks the delicate taste of beluga caviar, as it is often salted much more. Additional salt will diminish the flavor profile of your caviar and its value.
While caviar’s demand slightly dropped due to importation bans that were implemented in the early 2000s, it has skyrocketed in recent years. Unfortunately, innovations in the caviar harvesting industry haven’t been able to match the increase in demand, meaning that the price of beluga caviar is expected to stay high for the foreseeable future.
How Much Does Beluga Caviar Cost?
While I’ve spent the whole article discussing why beluga caviar is so expensive, I haven’t really gone over how expensive it is. So, how expensive is caviar? The cost of a particular tin of beluga caviar is dependent on the process that is used to create it combined with the rarity of the caviar.
Since beluga caviar is the rarest form of caviar, it retails for the highest price. The most expensive beluga caviar is produced using the malossol process, which ensures that the roe is preserved without oversalting it.
The beluga sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in existence, able to reach up to over 20 feet in length. The large size of these fish makes them much harder to raise than other kinds of sturgeon that are known for their caviar production, and it also means that you have to wait longer for them to reach harvesting age.
The title of the most expensive beluga caviar is up for contention, with the Almas caviar selling for about $34,000 per kilo. On the other hand, a recent competitor in the beluga caviar market has eclipsed Almas in price: Strottarga Bianco with a price of $40,000 per teaspoon. Of course, this is largely because the eggs have been laced with 22-karat gold.
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