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It all starts in the forest. Cork oaks are harvested every nine years, once they reach maturity. It doesn't harm the tree, and the cork bark regrows. Most cork forests are in Portugal and Spain.
The year of harvest is marked on the trunk, so each tree isn't harvested at the wrong time. Cork is a great insulating material, and gives these oaks a chance to survive the forest fires that occasionally happen in the hot Mediterranean summers.
The harvested cork planks are stored before processing. Good cork companies will store them on concrete rather than bare earth, lowering the risk of contamination. It's quite thin, and won't be used to produce high-quality natural cork. But now there are also technical corks, made up of small pieces of cork fused together, which means that more of the cork bark is suitable for producing wine bottle closures.
Before processing, the cork planks are put on pallets. Then they are ready for the first stage in the cork production process: boiling.
The planks are boiled to soften them, and also to clean them. In the bad old days these would be boiled in murky pits without the water being changed very often. Now, to avoid cross-contamination, the water is cleaned, filtered and replenished regularly, with volatiles being removed on a continuous basis.