The sturgeon’s body thrashes, twists, and cracks against the water’s surface like a whip, then goes curiously still in its captor’s rubber gloves. It hangs rigid in the air, moon-shaped mouth agape and whiskers quivering on its pointed snout. Sturgeon are, to put it bluntly, pretty strange animals. Their evolutionary lineage dates back to the Triassic Period, before T-rex and co. even walked the Earth, and they haven’t changed a whole lot since then. When left to their own devices, these deep-sea predators can live for up to a century and grow to monstrous sizes—the largest beluga sturgeon on record clocked in at 7.2 meters and a whopping 1,571 kilograms, putting it on par with some species of whales.
At only a year old, this particular specimen weighs a much more modest five kilograms, but grows by the day alongside roughly 6,000 of its brethren. What’s most remarkable about this particular school is that it isn’t swimming in the icy waters of the Caspian Sea or the Black Sea, but rather in tanks on the outskirts of Hua Hin, a beach town in Thailand. To keep the water cool enough for the fish to survive, the whole building is built like an air-raid bunker, with 20-centimeter-thick concrete walls for insulation and air-conditioners blasting around the clock. It might seem like madness to raise these creatures in a country where temperatures regularly soar above 40°C, but Alexey Tyutin, a Siberian-born property mogul believes in it enough to bet his Bt85 million (USD 2.5 million) initial investment on it. Part of his incentive comes from the simple fact that, for the foreseeable future, caviar from farmed sturgeon is the only kind most of us are going to (legally) get.
“These days, there are hardly any sturgeon left in the Caspian Sea. We killed all the fish,” Tyutin tells me. Russia’s obsession with caviar is centuries old—Ivan the Terrible was reportedly a fan in the 16th century—but the more recent rise of large-scale commercial fishing has devastated sturgeon populations. In the industry’s heyday, the U.S.S.R. exported roughly 1,500 tons in a year, an unthinkable sum today. “I remember when I was little, we had big bowls like you would have for chicken, but full of caviar. Red, black. The caviar didn’t keep for long, so they had to keep selling it. I have an old poster from the 1940s that basically says, Push yourself to eat more black caviar!”
It wasn’t long before the consequences of everyone pushing themselves to gobble down caviar kicked in. By the 1990s, wild sturgeon were placed under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Although Russia may not have the best conservation track record, the government recognized the need to save the survivors. In 2008, the nation placed a temporary ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea. Despite restrictions, the prospect of bagging up to $10,000 per kilo has historically proven too tempting for illegal poachers and smugglers, resulting in an illicit global distribution network that bears an uncanny resemblance to drug trafficking organizations. By the 2010, sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea plummeted to 2.5 percent of what they had been in 1980, reaching critically endangered levels. Since wild sturgeon remains listed as endangered, sales of wild caviar remain prohibited in many countries, including the U.S., which introduced a ban in 2005.
As a result, virtually all of the caviar produced annually comes from farms much like this one. Unlike wild sturgeon, which fishermen slit open and slaughter, farmers can extract the eggs from the females without causing lasting damage. By placing the fish in cooler tanks, farmers can artificially induce hibernation, causing the fish to stop eating for months. During this time they shed fat and the eggs lose their fishy smell. When the sturgeon return to warmer waters, instinct kicks in and the eggs loosen in preparation for springtime—i.e. mating season. In a process called “milking,” which looks every bit as bizarre as you might imagine, farmers can squeeze out up to 15 percent of the fish’s body weight in caviar. In other words, one of these ten-kilogram behemoths can pump out 1.5 kilos of caviar—a motherload that can easily fetch five figures.
Given the potential rewards, it’s no surprise that other countries and entrepreneurs are getting in on this game. Japan’s muscling in on the caviar industry with farms on the island of Kyushu, while massive industrial farms in Vietnam have been churning out the stuff for years.
WATCH: Caviar, Made in China
“Vietnam has huge farms, much bigger than us, but no one knows about them, because they cannot go to the international market,” Tyutin says. “The ponds are dirtier than the Chao Phraya River. The caviar smells because it comes from a swamp.”
Even Thailand is already in on the game. The Royal Projects, a government-funded agricultural endeavor, has been raising sturgeon in outdoor ponds up in the country’s cooler north for more than a decade, but the scope of the project and quality of the product pales in comparison to what Tyutin hopes to achieve. The biggest and, and maybe counterintuitively one of the best, players, though, is China—the country’s four largest farms churn out around 60 percent of the world’s production. In other words, those ultra-premium tins from Russian caviar barons probably contain eggs from the People’s Republic.
“In the beginning, we did not tell what kind of caviar we have. When you’re selling something from China, people get all skeptical,” Tyutin says. Since his own sturgeon are years from maturity, he relies on imported Chinese caviar to supply his company, Caviar House of Bangkok. “I’ve personally visited all of the farms we buy from. I’ve seen the facilities and how they breed the fish. Even Caviar Petrossian sells caviar from China.”
“Made in China” may not have a nice ring to it, but the Chinese caviar I sampled was good enough that I would have happily scarfed down the whole tin with a spoon. I’m no expert, of course, but plenty of people who are have come to the same conclusion in blind taste tests. Counterintuitively, you’re actually better off steering clear of fancy French and Italian labels. Most E.U. and Middle Eastern nations lace their product with sodium tetraborate, or boric acid, which gives the eggs a distinctive pop and a much longer shelf-life. It also tends to accumulate in the body and, research suggests, can wreak havoc with everything from your metabolic rate to your reproductive system. It’s controversial enough that all forms of borax are banned in the United States and much of Southeast Asia.
“Borax makes the eggs firmer—it’s more like POP, POP, POP. It used to be a secret ingredient for meatballs, because it makes them crunchy,” Tyutin says. “When in doubt, look at the expiration date. If it’s valid for nine months, that’s only possible with preservatives. Ours has a maximum of three.”
Whether or not Tyutin’s own caviar can live up to his lofty ambitions remains to be seen. His sturgeon have at least three more years of swimming about and munching on imported Danish fish food before they produce any eggs. In the meantime, he’s attempting to build up a local market for a product once seen as the exclusive domain of the super-rich.
“When we started the business two years ago, the price for caviar was crazy, around Bt200,000 [USD 6,200] for normal caviar. Beluga in [luxury shopping center] Siam Paragon was Bt45,000 [USD 1,400] for 30 grams,” he says. He started by dropping the price dramatically and reaching out to restaurants. Because both supplies and demand were so low, he views the farms on the Royal Projects as allies rather than competitors. “Imagine if in three years we got our first caviar and we had nowhere to sell it? The Royal Project didn’t do any marketing and now they have caviar, but no one knows, so they’re selling fish meat. I deliver the meat from the Royal Projects to restaurants for free, just to help them out.”
Still, even if demand rises, the days of “pushing yourself” to shovel down caviar are gone for good. When I ask how often he digs into his own stash, Tyutin admits been known to sneak a spoonful while packaging his gold-plated tins.
“I don’t want to eat it too often, though, because if you do, then you lose value,” he says. Really, he says, it should be eaten with friends, dolloped onto blinis and chased with shots of vodka during delirious, boozy dinner parties that last until dawn. “If you eat it every day, it’s boring.”