“Wow, I can taste the spice mix, nice.” Is my first thought. “Phew, that is sweet!” Is my second thought. “I wonder if that’s the pumpkin?” Is my third thought. It is autumn and that means one thing, Pumpkin Spice Lattes.
At least that is what it means to global coffee chain Starbucks. Perhaps the most recognisable item on their menu, the Pumpkin Spice Latte makes an appearance on the advertisement boards of each store at the end of every August.
The drink first appeared on the coffee store’s menu back in 2003, following the successful introduction of other wintery drinks, Eggnog Lattes and Peppermint Mochas. It quickly overtook the others in popularity. Requests for Peppermint Mochas, which frankly sounds disgusting, faded away. The ultimate hot drink had reached the stores.
To date, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is Starbuck’s highest grossing item, bringing in a reported revenue of over $1.4 billion USD to the coffee megabrand. In 2014 the chain reported that over the last 11 years they had sold over 200 million cups of autumn coffee, as they also call it.
It would be easy to put the sales down to good marketing but the reach of Pumpkin Spice Lattes reaches further than the strong grasp of Starbucks. Independent of its creator the coffee has gone on to become its own global phenomenon, a cultural icon for the Internet age and the millennial generation. An odd thing to say about a cup of coffee, I know, but to see the evidence you need to look to the most isolated capital city in the world, Perth, Australia.
Perth is the capital city of the Australian state, Western Australia (WA). It is also the only city in WA and sits alone on the coast of an expanse of bushland larger than the geographical reach of the EU. Perth does not have a single Starbucks coffee shop. Sitting in the southern hemisphere Perth also enjoys a warm spring followed by a hot summer, while the north embraces autumn and survives winter. There are no Pumpkin Spice Lattes to be found during September in Perth, or at any other time of the year. No billboards, posters or adverts even announce their existence, yet in Perth we have heard all about them.
They overtake our social media, a single coffee cup, not even a mug, being shared over and over on Instagram. Pinterest becomes a frenzy of recipes for homemade Pumpkin Spice Lattes and autumn mood boards, which of course include Pumpkin Spice Lattes. YouTube is filled with videos, often mocking Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The fact is that in the months of September and October there is simply no escaping the reign of Pumpkin Spice Lattes.
There is even a backlash directed against this warm autumnal drink. A drink with its own Tumblr, Facebook group and hashtag is hardly going to be without its “haters.” They are considered a drink for “basic” people, a word which here means, young adults and teens who are boringly mainstream. But that is unsurprising. When you hear about something so much you start to grow sick of it. The number of times I have written ‘Pumpkin Spice Latte’ is a prime example of that.
So, after years of build-up and living in Perth, the wasteland devoid of Pumpkin Spice Lattes (let’s call them PSLs from now on), I was more than excited to try my first PSL. As some who regularly adds cinnamon to their hot chocolate, I anticipated I would rather like them although as some who had pumpkin pie once and found it a bit overpowering, I wasn’t so sure. But after so many years of hearing about it I was ready to see for myself. Would the PSL live up to the hype?
A little wary of being judged I walked into Starbucks and placed my order. In true Starbucks style I changed the order slightly, swapping the shot of espresso for a hot chocolate. I planned to drink it while I went for an hour-long walk, something to keep me warm as the evening air got chillier.
It was sweet. I have already said that but it was truthfully one of the sweetest things I have ever tasted, almost sickeningly so and I have a very sweet tooth. Pumpkin is already a delightfully sweet vegetable. Hot chocolate is crammed with sugar and after reading through the ingredients list I noticed that condensed milk also made the list.
Their spice mix was excellent, though. A mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove made for an almost gingerbread taste which tasted delightfully Christmassy, As for the pumpkin itself, it was definitely there, not particularly strong, just a hint.
Certainly delicious, certainly warming, but certainly way, way too sweet. I made it 200 metres and four sips before I gave up and placed it in the nearest bin. £3.50 not so well spent.
That being said, I do not think all is lost for the PSL. When drunk in its original form I can easily imagine a shot of coffee could balance out the sugar levels. Perhaps if I just hadn’t added the cream on top….! But I can’t help but think it sounds most appealing just on its own, a pure PSL, emphasis on the Latte. No coffee, no hot chocolate, just PSL sauce and spice mix and warm milk. Now that sounds tempting.