There are seemingly countless products to choose from when it comes to capsules and closures. Here’s an overview of what’s new in the major categories, sustainability efforts, and how to make the right choice for your product.
Natural cork has seen its ups and downs when it comes to popularity. But since 2008 (when use was at its lowest due to TCA concerns and a shift toward alternative options), demand has increased more than 30 percent. The increase is largely due to the research and development of technology that eliminates TCA contamination, something all suppliers in this category are striving toward (Amorim recently announced it’s working on a system that will eradicate TCA for all its natural cork stoppers by 2020).
Another factor is that more consumers, especially millennials, are concerned with sustainability—and cork is arguably one of the most sustainable products in the world. It’s also the top choice (pun intended) for premier wines, especially those intended to be aged in-bottle.
“We believe natural cork is the preferred closure worldwide,” says José Remoaldo, chief sales officer at M.A. Silva, which produced more than 600 million corks in 2017 and has a presence in 40 countries worldwide. “We have zero waste from production, and protecting the cork forests’ biodiversity is a major concern,” he adds.
The company began research into technologies to eliminate TCA in 2000 and fully employs them today. It has systems in place to boil cork planks at high pressure, maximizing TCA removal, and to wash finished corks to further reduce organic impurities and compounds that can cause off-aromas. In 2016, it released a program called Onebyone, which tests finished corks individually. “It’s an expensive process—cutting edge—and ensures individual cork testing for TCA,” says Remoaldo.
Peter Hladun is vice president and general manager of Cork Supply’s Top of the Bottle division, which identifies natural cork is its main product. “Harvesting cork uses every bit without cutting the tree, and it regenerates every nine years,” he adds. “The trees’ average lifespan is 200 years. It comes down to keeping them healthy with ideal soil and growing conditions. In turn, this supports local agriculture and livestock efforts. It means not leaving anything to waste.”
Cork Supply has also conducted extensive research and has developed technologies regarding best practices for farming cork wood and services, like DS100, that help protect customers from tainted bottles. “We individually screen each cork for all wine and spirits closures. It’s an additional service and something we’re proud of,” says Hladun.
Micro-agglomerated CorkMicro-agglomerate is cork particles fused together using a binder. Once natural corks are cut from the tree bark, the byproduct is ground up into particulates and adhered back together, most often with food-grade glue. It’s a popular choice for those who desire natural cork but at less cost overall, and is a top choice for spirits producers for shanks and bar tops, where oxygen is less of a factor. “Micro-agglomerate continues to grow as a market segment and is a big opportunity for us,” says Hladun. “We used to sell the natural cork byproduct to other manufacturers, but have invested in a facility in Portugal where we can produce them ourselves.
“Small and mid-size spirits producers use this in conjunction with metals, woods, and plastics for their bar tops; they’re really the ones who are going for custom looks,” he adds.
Vinventions has taken the idea to the next level, with a new, glue-free micro-agglomerated cork that’s just now hitting the market. “Wine corks are the only product that use glue in direct contact with food,” says Malcolm Thompson, chief innovation officer and president of the Americas at Vinventions. “As a company, we wanted to move away from glue. Instead, our SÜBR closure uses a plant-based binder and is fully biodegradable. It can be reused and recycled—unlike the ones with glue—and there are no health concerns. We also want to ensure the health of our workers and were concerned about the handling of glue over the long-term,” he says.
There are synthetic cork styles to fit any need within the alcohol industry, including beer, wine, sparkling wine, spirits, cider, and beyond. The idea gained popularity when it emerged on the market as an alternative to natural cork that promised better TCA control. And similar to natural cork, it comes in various grades and styles.
At Vinventions, there are PlantCorcs to fit any winemaking style, offering predictable and consistent oxygen ingress levels. Its Nomacorc gained popularity when it emerged on the market as an alternative to natural cork that promised better TCA control, and its PlantCorcs come in various grades and styles. “Producers of premium wines and spirits want closures that have a natural appearance,” says Thompson.
“Our plant-based Nomacorc Green line has replaced fossil fuel-based products, and we’ve significantly improved the look of these closures with a new printing technology that’s applied to the end and sides of the closure to make it virtually indistinguishable from top-quality natural cork.” Based on renewable, plant-based polymers derived from sugarcane, the products are fully recyclable and have low- to zero-carbon footprints.
“We model our innovations based on the market’s needs and global trends,” Thompson continues. “Most recently, there’s been a shift toward higher quality, premium products and closures that offer performance, design, and sustainability.”
Screw Caps and Capsules
Most items in this category are some form of metal, polyethylene, PVOC, or a combination thereof. Screw caps combine both ease of use and protection from oxygen, while capsules provide an added layer over extractable closures (this includes foils and wire hoods for sparkling wines). Screw caps were originally developed by Stevlin in France about 50 years ago and are traditionally made of tin, which is sturdy and recyclable. In more recent years, the cost of tin has increased significantly, limiting its use to premium brands. Polyethylene capsules have three layers, with aluminum on the outsides and polyethylene in the middle.
“Tin is limited to wines that are $20 or more per bottle,” says Jeremy Bell, general manager, capsules, Cork Supply USA, whose Rivercap division is the largest supplier of tin caps in the United States. “We pride ourselves on their design and innovation for a high-end look and feel. Tin is also 100 percent recyclable. Polyethylene is used for bottles priced at $5 to $20, and PVOC is for those less than $5—generally, large production/lower-end wines use it.”
The company also offers an Absolute Green line of capsules made from renewable resources. “The polylaminate in this line is sourced from sugar cane that’s planted in areas that won’t sustain other crops,” says Bell. “And all the inks for the tin and polylaminate are water-based with no solvents, making the capsules virtually carbon-neutral. PVOC is a bit more problematic, as it has environmental drawbacks.”“Tin has a luxury appearance and we’ve been producing it for more than 150 years; we call it Softgard,” says Sophie-Gabrielle Martin, marketing executive, North America, Amcor Capsules. “Not every customer is willing to invest in tin capsules—they’ve very expensive—but they still want to maintain the premium image. We developed aluminium [Aluprem] and high-quality polylaminate [APEAL (LUXPREM+)] capsules, which help reduce cost but offer customers the latest innovations in materials, aesthetics and application.”
Alternative capsule materials are always being developed. Amcor’s Stelvin line offers aluminum screw cap closures with PVDC-free liners, and customers can choose the grade of oxygen permeability. Its Stelvin Lux line has a premium appearance including a smooth finish, and its soft-touch technology, which adds a velvety feel to the capsule, is good for premiumization. And its Supaluxe is an aluminum closure ideal for high-sugar content liqueurs; it ensures smooth opening and no sugar residue, which can make opening difficult. “We’re also looking at creating different shapes for capsules,” says Martin.
Amcor is the first global packaging company pledging that all its packaging will be recyclable and/or reusable by 2025. Its efforts are addressing the problem of plastic waste head-on, working with multiple organizations to keep plastics out of oceans and to improve and increase the recycling infrastructures worldwide.
Design and Security Innovations
There are multiple options for capsule design, and new choices are constantly emerging. “Iridescent inks are new this year,” says Bell. “Whoever chooses it for their capsules will be the first.”
Texturing is also a newly popular choice. “Before sandwiching the polyethylene capsules, we emboss one sheet of aluminum, so the texture shows up on the outside. It can feel like linen, among other things. For sparkling foils, there’s a soft touch option for a velvety feel,” he adds.Other options include hot stamping (eye-catching metallic foils), tactile inks that have a special varnish, laser engraving, thermochromic inks that change to a specific color or reveal a hidden design when the closure reaches a specific temperature, glow-in-the-dark inks, four-color printing and beyond.
“Laser engraving on screw caps is good for smaller producers, because it can be done in small quantities and can be used for custom caps,” says Martin. “Hot stamping on foil can be done in small amounts as well. Color-changing closures are good for when a winemaker thinks the wine should be a certain temperature, because the ink will adjust accordingly,” she adds.
“There’s also a method we offer where an invisible UV spot is used to align the closure’s design with the label; otherwise, it’s really hard to do that.”
As security is a top concern for premium offerings, especially in Europe and China, there are various methods you can choose. “We’re dabbling with inks so you can trace whether the cap is original,” says Bell.
Amcor’s InTact product (currently in development) has a chip in the cap for brand protection. “Consumers can scan it using an app on their phone to ensure what’s in the bottle is real,” says Martin. “We’re also working on a glue that prohibits removing the overcap, making it impossible to refill the bottle with a fraudulent wine.”
How to Choose
With so many options and materials to consider, your choices come down to what best matches your product’s cost, style, and sustainability concerns. “Aging is an issue,” explains Hladun. “How are you designing the product? Is it a quick turnaround rosé? A cult cabernet meant to be aged for decades? Or something fun and funky?” he adds. “Spirits are a bit different, since they aren’t aged in the bottle and oxygen is less of a factor, but you also want to ensure your choices don’t have aromas that will interfere with what’s inside.
“How do you want the consumer to feel?” he continues. “With spirits, a heavy, solid top says luxury. A screw cap says ease of use. And with any product, how crazy do you want to get with design so it looks different than the others on the shelf?”“It’s always up to the customer to decide on what closure is right for them,” says Nuno Silva, marketing manager at M.A. Silva. “We have teams that can help people choose, as there are different products for different aging periods. Our lab can also analyze a bottle to help suggest its appropriate closure. After that, the details of color, branding, and printing come into play.”
In short, the options you choose will help inform the consumer what to expect from the product. “Key considerations are wine preservation and cosmetics,” says Thompson. “The more premium the product, the more importance should be given to oxygen management performance and aesthetics.”
Consider your audience. What are they seeking? Is it style, luxury, sustainability, or affordability? What’s most important to you as a brand? Match your product in style and personality so there are no surprises once that top comes off.