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It’s in your bottles of wine and champagne and it’s what Yoloha mats are made of, but what’s cork anyway? It’s rubbery, tan, and your fashionable friends have decorative vases full of it in their living rooms, but where does it come from and how is it made?
Used for centuries to craft items such as bouys, sandals, and stoppers, cork has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and in the writings of ancient Greece. Romans made their homes and ships from corkwood planks and used it as material for early lifejackets. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the helmets of the soldiers of Latium were made from “stripped bark of the cork tree.” In Natural History, Pliny the Elder credited Celtic tribes with the innovation of using wooden barrels and cork stoppers to store wine. Even the great poet Horace wrote of Bacchus (aka “Dionysus,” aka the Greco-Roman “god of the party”) removing cork from jars of wine.
During the Dark Ages, a decline in trade across Europe meant that cork fell into disuse and vintners had to resort to stopping wine bottles using wood or oil-soaked rags. Wine stored in this way had to be consumed quickly (usually within a year) before air leaks could ruin it.
Cork was first exported to England in 1307 to be used as soles for shoes and it wasn’t until the late 16th century that it was used as a stopper for glass bottles of liquids, including wine, it’s most popular function today. (For more on this aspect of the history of cork, I highly recommend George M. Taber’s To Cork Or Not To Cork).
*Fun Fact - During the 17th century, the British Royal Society’s Robert Hooke studied cork under a microscope, comparing it to both honeycomb and to monk’s cells in monasteries. These observations eventually led to his discovery and naming of the “cell” as a biological unit.
The cork we use comes from the outer bark of a Cork Oak (Quercus suber), a tree primarily grown in southern Europe and northern Africa that can live for approximately 200 years. There are about 2.2 million hectares of cork forest worldwide, 34% of which is in Portugal and 27% in Spain. At the cellular level (yes, I had look this part up), cork is filled with small pockets of air, which accounts for nearly 90% of its volume and explains its buoyancy and compressibility. It can withstand extreme temperatures, conducts neither heat nor cold, it absorbs impact, and it’s extremely durable.
Once a Cork Oak reaches about 25 years of age, cork may be stripped from its trunk every 9 years. Bark from the first few harvests, lower quality “male cork,” is generally used to make industrial products while high quality “gentle cork,” is used to make stoppers for wine and champagne bottles (as well as that bulletin board we all have in our garages and never actually use). Extractors, those who specialize in harvesting cork, are highly skilled in the centuries-old practice of cutting dead bark from Cork Oaks without harming the living portion of the tree. About 200,000 tons of cork is produced annually with Portugal producing about half of the cork harvested worldwide each year.
Cork production is one of the most sustainable and environmentally harvested natrual resources on the planet for quite a few reasons. As mentioned already, Cork Oaks are not cut down during the harvesting process and are generally well maintained by producers interested in collecting the highest quality bark possible. Cork Oak forests prevent desertification and provide habitats for more than 200 animal and 135 plant species. Furthermore, Cork products are both durable and easily recyclable.
Cork stoppers represent about 70% of all cork-based production (in terms of value) and are used for about 80% of the 20 billion bottles of wine produced each year. Cork’s flexibility means that it can be compressed while inserted into a bottleneck and then expand to form a tight seal. Over the past couple of decades, some winemakers have begun using alternative wine closures such as synthetic plastic stoppers and screw caps, which can be cheaper than cork and prevent any gas-leakage. Not only are these alternatives less environmentally friendly than cork, they can adversely affect the quality of wine, reducing oxygenation to zero and preventing proper aging.
Cork isn’t just for wine, however. Cork is buoyant, elastic, fire-retardent, and impermeable, making it perfect for fishing supplies, flooring, woodwind instruments, baseballs, shoes, insulation, and of course, Yoloha yoga mats and paddleboards.
About the Author: Melissa Lynn is a writer, yogi, and coffee fanatic from Southern California. A former Division I athlete, Melissa earned her BA in History at Stanford University, worked as a paralegal in Washington, DC, and happily traded pencil skirts for spandex to become a full-time yoga instructor. She is an avid traveler and you can learn about her experiences abroad on her personal blog and website at TheTravelingAmericano.com