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Twenty Years of Pumpkin Spice Lattes: Basic Batches or Correct Consumption?


Here we are in the third week of September, five days away from the beginning of astronomical Fall. It’s still quite warm in New Mexico, and here in Albuquerque the Rio Grande ran dry this month for the second year in a row, which previously hadn’t happened since before I was born. Nonetheless, we are already a month into PSL season.

Starbucks released its Pumpkin Pie Spice Latte in 2003, and the past two decades have seen an explosion of other pumpkin-flavored or pumpkin-pie-spice-flavored food and drink, but also a proliferation of home decor, stationery, apparel, and other consumer goods shaped like or emblazoned with pumpkins.

I’ve long been partial to the following psychological explanation for the monumental commercial success of pumpkin iconography in the past several years: it is as if the increasingly unusual heat late into the Fall causes people to express their climate anxiety through the consumption of Fall-associated food and consumer goods. If it doesn’t feel like Fall, we must perform Fall.

Pet theories aside, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is the subject of fan devotion and popular derision alike: a Rorschach test in which some identify the warm feelings of authenticity and home, and others see a distasteful corruption of coffee ideals. Negative attitudes towards the PSL also reveal it as a strongly gendered beverageas feminine frippery. This is evidenced by the memes posted at the end of this blog which identify "girls" and "girlfriends" as being enraptured by the Svengali-like PSL. 

As you know, we at Red Rock Roasters are passionately agnostic on the subject of what you put in your coffee. We just make the best coffee we can and let you do the rest.

But I also want to take a moment to discuss PSLs in their larger historical context, because the combination of pumpkin pie spices and coffee is hundreds of years old. According to this classic article on Peter Giuliano's blog, PSLs have deep roots. From the article:

Baristas this time of year get ready to either 1. make people lots of Pumpkin Spice Lattes or 2. explain to lots of people why they don’t have Pumpkin Spice Lattes on the menu. Either way, it’s a topic, and some coffee people wind up scorning the PSL as a kind of non-coffee or anti-coffee drink, a stain on the tradition of pure coffee flavor and enjoyment.

What these people miss is that we might owe the very existence of coffee in the world to the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Coffee piggybacked on the spice trade to become a globally traded commodity, and the first coffee traders were really pumpkin spice traders. Coffee has been mixed with the spices cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace and ginger since the very beginning.

This ties in with an argument I often make when snobs challenge me on the fact that a big part of our business is not coffee, but flavored sugar syrups. Coffee has traditionally been mixed with spices, sugar, and/or milk for hundreds of years in Europe and the Middle East.

Drinking coffee black is more the anomaly, by the numbers (according to DriveResearch, 1 in 4 coffee consumers usually drink black coffee. 81% of the same respondents reported using a sweetener of some kind). Humans like sweet things, and mixing flavors is part of the creativity and exploration of our food cultures. 

Even in the knowledge that most consumers prefer coffee mixed with sugar and milk, the PSL’s blockbuster success was a surprise even for the Starbucks team that came up with the recipe:

Of the couple dozen or so beverages Starbucks' coffee whizzes had cooked up to mark the 2003 Fall season, the PSL scored well behind front-runner flavors like chocolate caramel and cinnamon spice in market testing.

Still, the team decided to give it a shot, never expecting it to strike the gold mine it did.

In the time that I’ve been blogging about Pumpkin Spice Lattes, hating on PSLs has become fully as basic as loving PSLs.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte can therefore be taken as metonymy for the entirety of coffee culture. New coffee thing (which is very, very often actually an old coffee thing that's being revived, *cough-cough-Chemex-Toddy-Siphon-cough-cough*) hits market, is successful. Purists disdain new thing. Backers of new thing react to purists. New thing continues to be successful, eventually becoming totally standard to the point it's not worth commenting on. New new thing hits market, etc.

It's Schumpeter's Creative Destruction. It's Disney's Circle of Life.

I'll leave you with some PSL commentary via memes and TikTok.



This skit by Stanzi Potenze is NSFW and also darkly existential

And if you'd like to learn how to MAKE a Pumpkin Spice Latte at home, here's a recipe from Morgan Eckroth. 

What's the best coffee to use for your at-home PSL? I'd recommend Black Magic Blend, as its roastiness lends balance to both the sweetness of simple syrup and the slightly vegetal flavors of clove and nutmeg.