When researching most food products, it’s easy to take a “good, better, best” approach when making a selection. Steaks, for example, have a linear grading system, and when it comes to production: you can gauge quality based on organic and GMO-free labels.
However, caviar is more similar to wine or cheese in how it’s classified and evaluated.
While there are some terms to signify objective quality, you’ll find that every manufacturer has a unique ranking system, and exceptions always apply.
That’s why it’s tricky to fully understand something like Royal Imperial caviar. The name suggests exclusivity, quality, and high cost, but what does it mean beyond that?
As you’ll find on your caviar journey, there’s more than meets the eye.
The Royal Imperial Label
There are a handful of products bearing the Royal Imperial label, but there is no universal standard that earns them this title.
However, you may find that products with this name have a few common characteristics that set them apart from other types of caviar. Here are some factors that come into play.
To earn the Royal Imperial name, caviar must typically come from one of the “Big Five” types of sturgeon – Beluga, Sevruga, Ossetra, Kaluga, and American.
These are the largest, rarest, and most difficult-to-source sturgeons in the world, many of which have been made scarcer by overfishing, pollution, and poaching.
You can expect Beluga and Sevruga sturgeon to often have a Royal Imperial label, but this isn’t always the case. On the other hand, Ossetra and Kaluga may earn the title on rare occasions, while it’s even less common for American sturgeon.
Exclusivity appears to play a main role in determining whether a caviar may receive a Royal Imperial designation, as well as the maturity of the fish and the place of origin.
Nevertheless, smart caviar shoppers must always look beyond the label and try to piece together the real facts and figures about the caviar they buy. Never be fooled by what’s written on the jar or tin, and be diligent when considering high-volume purchases especially.
The sturgeon from which caviar comes is the main determinant of Royal Imperial status.
After all, Iranian Shahs and Russian Czars would settle for nothing less than Beluga or Sevruga caviar at their lavish palace parties, and neither should you!
However, quality is also of importance when labeling caviar of any kind, and you can be certain that only the best quality eggs make their way into jars and tins of Royal Imperial.
We’ll discuss grading systems shortly, but keep in mind that shape, size, texture, and uniformity are all part of the process for determining quality.
Ranking Systems by Producer
One might assume by the prestigious name that Royal Imperial caviar is superior to all other forms of sturgeon roe, but there’s an important caveat to mention here before you go clearing out the supply of your local gourmet grocer.
As we mentioned, the Royal Imperial label does not refer to an objective standard of quality or even type of sturgeon.
You will realize this when comparing different products side by side and seeing the variations among them.
Also, the individual terms “royal” and “imperial” are often used in manufacturers’ own system of caviar rating, which will not carry over to other producers and vendors.
A company might use the Royal Imperial label to indicate a certain type and grade of caviar, but it’s not always at the top of the heap.
Other terms like “Special Reserve” and “Tsar Imperial” could be used interchangeably, and you may even see labels including words like “Classic” or “President.”
The lesson here is that you should always step back and consider all the facts when determining the true quality of Royal Imperial caviar. Every brand does things a bit differently, and of course, personal taste and preferences also come into play.
In other words, don’t just spring to buy Royal Imperial caviar whenever it’s offered! Protect yourself as a consumer and put in the research to get the complete picture.
How Caviar Is Graded
While caviar labels like Royal Imperial seem to be more marketing than anything else, there are always objective standards by which caviar is judged.
Here are the key factors that caviar producers and critics look for when determining the real quality of a product.
Size and Shape
Large and spherical pearls are almost always given a higher ranking by caviar producers since this is simply the tradition of the trade.
While many caviar fans enjoy smaller beads to the big, bursting spheres, the size and shape of the eggs are one of the objective ways to sort and rank caviar.
These physical traits are clear and readily apparent to caviar producers, which is why you’ll see top-ranking caviars featuring the largest, roundest pearls. This also indicates the maturity of the sturgeon, which also plays into the exclusivity and price of the final product.
Texture and Taste
It’s only fair to expect that caviar producers sample a scoop or two of their latest batch! Furthermore, the flavors and textures of the caviar help them determine which label should be ascribed to the tin before shipping.
The firmness of the eggs’ exterior is a primary factor in assessing texture since the finest caviar is noted for the distinctive “pop” on the palate. You can be sure that caviars with a definitive bursting quality earn a higher rank.
Flavors are also vital to quality assessment, and generally speaking, examiners are looking for richness, depth, and complexity when making their judgments.
Top-quality caviar should not simply be “salty” or “briny” – it must have a wide array of flavor notes ranging from butter, cream, and nuts, to herbs, spices, and fruit.
Furthermore, the finish of the caviar should be long and complex, remaining on the palate and flooding the senses long after the pearls are gone.
Flavor is subjective indeed, but depending on the sturgeon type and clear quality indicators, a product will be given a grade that fits the bill.
Uniformity, separation, and solidity are a few factors that also go into the final grade for a caviar product – a single scoop should contain pearls that look the same and can be picked apart into their individual pieces.
Color is not as important, barring any obvious marks of poor quality and discoloration. A single species of sturgeon can yield many different colored eggs depending on conditions, diet, and aquaculture practices.
For this reason, color is not an immediate quality factor for most brands.
Get the Royal Caviar Experience
In the massive marketplace of the internet, it’s easy to fall for labels and be fooled by companies looking to make a quick buck by adding fancy words to their caviar labels.
While there might have once been a time when the “Royal Imperial” name meant something objective and universal, that is simply no longer the case.
You are much better off doing the research and finding caviar that you personally enjoy, making the most of your money.
It may be that you find a particular version of Royal Imperial caviar that checks all the boxes for your palate and budget. Alternatively, you might find that this label never seems to offer what you’re looking for.
A better option is to sort by caviar type like Royal Ossetra and find brands with pristine reputations for quality.
In conclusion, it’s important to keep an open mind but never drop your standards as you navigate the world of caviar. Always remember that pure quality and freshness are truly the most important factors, and those should be your priorities - no matter what.