It looks like the 2022 cork harvest in Portugal is going to be substantially lower than previous years, which will inevitably lead to a shortage in supply of cork, which is already driving up prices. In this article we will explain why this has occurred.
Cork is produced when cork oaks are stripped of their bark, a process that can be carried out every nine years (as this is the time that a cork oak needs to generate new bark of sufficient thickness). Harvesting the cork requires highly skilled workers, who use sharp axes to liberate the cork bark from the tree, whilst not damaging the tree itself so that it can regenerate the bark. This harvesting process can only be done from May through to August, as it is only in the Summer months that the bark separates readily from the the trunk of a cork oak: this is because the heat of the Summer loosens the bond between the bark and the membrane that sits between the bark and the trunk. So each year the cork forest owners wait until the temperature rises sufficiently before they can start harvesting (meaning the date varies every year, according to how early the real Summer heat starts).
If you attempt to remove the bark from the tree to early on in the season, it will not come off cleanly in large strips of cork bark, but rather will tend to fracture and leave some pieces of bark behind; worst of all it will be much more likely to damage the crucial membrane that protects the tree once the bark has been removed. The Summer of 2022 was plenty hot enough, but there were severe drought conditions however and this lack of moisture meant that the bark was not separating as it should have done from the tree. This meant that many cork oaks that were due for harvesting either could not be harvested at all, or that a proportion of the bark that should have been stripped had to be left behind.
In recent times there has always been more demand for cork than the cork sector can supply, not least because of the environmental benefits of using cork, which chimes with the growing environmental awareness. Increasing the supply of cork to match growing demand is virtually impossible in the short term – cork oaks need be around 25 years old before they give any meaningful harvest and you cannot harvest them more often than every 9 years, so the supply is strictly limited in the short and medium term (more planting is taking place of cork oak saplings, but this is a very long term project).
With the supply of cork already being limited, having a year with a low harvest such as 2022 is not good news for the cork industry. There are many different sectors of cork (wine stoppers, bar-top stoppers, expanded cork, cork lids, etc etc) so each sector will be impacted differently, but it is safe to say that prices will be much higher in 2023 than they were in 2022. With a bit of luck some of the trees that could not be harvested in 2022 will be harvested in 2023 so that should help to increase the harvest then, but meanwhile, there is nothing that can be done to boost the supply this year.