With Caviar, What Does More Money Buy You?

Caviar is costly even at its least expensive. But what are you really getting when you spend extra for the premium grades?

Published Oct. 6, 2021.

Caviar is available in a number of grades, each more expensive than the next. The most basic varieties can sell for $50 to $100 per ounce, but more premium grades can go for as much as two to three times that price.

As we learned after talking to several caviar retailers, the grades are determined by each company’s master caviar maker. The names themselves are somewhat arbitrary—there are no universal industry standards, so one company’s “Royal” white sturgeon caviar could be another’s “Classic” or “Imperial.”

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The grade—and the cost—has to do with the rarity of the caviar’s attributes. One of the neat things about sturgeon, the fish from which “true” caviar comes, is that every fish is unique and different. The size, number, and color of the eggs can vary widely from fish to fish, even within the same species.

And while ultrasounds are often used by sturgeon farms to determine whether the fish eggs are ready to harvest, even the most seasoned sturgeon farmers and fishers don’t know exactly what they’re going to get when they open up a fish.

Higher-grade caviar (left) has bigger beads (eggs) and is often lighter in color than more basic varieties (right).

Typically, the higher the grade of caviar, the bigger the bead. Higher-grade caviar often comes in different shades and colors than the more basic grades—light-colored white sturgeon eggs are particularly uncommon, for example, and thus more prized.

And in theory, more premium caviar is also supposed to have more complex, well-developed flavors. This complex flavor isn’t due to a longer aging process; a variety of factors, including the specific maturity of the eggs when harvested, contribute to the nuances.

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Curious to see if the premium grades of caviar were actually better, we bought two grades—one basic, one higher grade—of both white sturgeon and osetra caviar, tasting them side by side. All the caviar was good, but there were differences.

The basic varieties were dark-colored and fresh-tasting—cleaner, brighter, simpler. The more premium grades were lighter-colored and did in fact have slightly larger beads—as much as 0.4 millimeters larger in the case of the white sturgeon. They were creamier in texture and richer and more intensely savory—nutty, meaty—than the more basic varieties. And they had longer finishes, that savory flavor lingering pleasantly in our mouths after we ate them.

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Are the premium grades worth the extra expense? It really depends on what you’re looking for. As several of the caviar retailers we talked to told us, “The best caviar is the one you like best.”

If you like fresher, brinier caviar that tastes like the sea, you might actually be better off sticking with the basic caviar—several of our tasters preferred it, and some of the caviar retailers we talked to said they did as well. But if the idea of creamier, more savory caviar appeals to you, and you can afford the extra expense, by all means, try the premium stuff.

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