A history of cork
Cork has been used by humans for at least 5000 years. Its light weight and natural water resistance led to it being used in fishing and seafaring by the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and Chinese. In ancient Greece cork was prized for being soft yet hard-wearing, which led to it being used in footwear. It continues to be used in footwear today for the same reasons.
The country that has had the closest relationship with cork through the ages has been Portugal, where the Montado (or Dehesa) landscape has been central to cork production for centuries. The Montados are areas of land used for agroforestry (or food forests). They typically contain a mixture of grasses and oak trees (especially Quercus Suber). As well as producing cork, they produce Honey and Mushrooms and support a range of wild and farmed animal species.
Montado landscape in Portugal
It has been speculated that Portugal's natural abundance of cork has been a factor in its nautical renown. Prized for its water-resistance and natural resistance to rot, cork was used extensively in the Portuguese caravels that pushed the frontiers of naval exploration from the 13th century onwards. Interestingly, today cork is used in NASA's space shuttles and Space X launch vehicles, so it remains a useful material on the frontier of human exploration.
Cork is perhaps best known today, however, for its use in the wine industry. Whilst there is evidence of cork stoppers being used in food and drink storage since as early as the 1st century BC, it is a famous name, Dom Perignon, who is credited with introducing cork to the modern wine industry on an industrial scale in the seventeenth century. By the end of the 19th century the majority of farmed cork was being used for wine and champagne stoppers - with cork farming occurring across Southern Europe. Portugal, Spain and North Africa.
Wine cork production using the bark of Quercus Suber
In Portugal agrarian laws protecting cork forests have been in place since the 13th century, however in recent years, due to a decrease in demand for cork from the wine industry, the Montado ecosystems have become under threat.
The wine industry steadily moved away from cork throughout the 2000s, owing to concerns regarding 'corking' - the effect of the molecule 2,4,6-trichloroanisole which can get into wine and affect the taste. Whilst corking is indeed a recognised phenomenon, in well-produced wine it is rare, and, in our opinion, certainly not worth avoiding cork stoppers on account of.
Cork remains by far the most environmentally friendly wine stopper material, with the average plastic wine stopper producing 10 times the level of C02 that cork stoppers produce. Aluminium screw caps, meanwhile, produce even higher C02 levels. Plastic wine stoppers are also a source of plastic waste, which is a source of major environmental concern.
The next time you buy wine, why not pause and look at the stopper first, and let this be a factor in your decision? Consumer behaviour is a key driver in bringing about sustainable practices in business.
Whilst cork use in the wine industry has gone down during the last 25 years, modern designers have been resourceful in finding other uses of cork. Jasper Morrison produced a cork stool for Vitra in 2004, followed by a range of cork furniture in 2019.
As well as having natural properties that make it suitable for a diverse range of products and uses, cork as a material has found particular appeal during the last decade or so among those who value sustainability and ethical concerns highly in informing their product choices. Footwear, wallets and bags are all places where cork has seen increased usage, as it has been observed to be an ethical alternative to leather.
Even without its ethical appeal, cork's unique properties continue to make it a natural choice for many groundbreaking technologies.
For instance its natural thermal and acoustic insulating properties have seen it used increasingly in architecture and engineering. Its natural light weight and elasticity have led to it being used recently in car seats - where it is lighter and takes up less volume than synthetic alternatives.
At Frame Cycles, we believe cork has both a wonderful history and an exciting future, and we're delighted to be working with Portuguese cork farmers in our first product offering.