Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

It’s everyone’s favorite, slightly awkward time of year. The giant bins in front of Trader Joe’s contain both watermelon’s and pumpkins. Our air conditioners are buzzing and our candy corn cravings are creeping in. Halloween is (kind of) around the corner and that means one very important thing for many people… it’s Pumpkin Spice Latte season.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte (or PSL) has become a cultural anomaly that most folks have strong feelings about. There are Ugg boot wearing mega fans who drool as they count down to the day when Starbucks launches their seasonal drinks each year. Alternatively, there are those who belong to a more traditional camp who dislike the beverage and strongly reject the pumpkin coffee concept as a whole. But why do people have such strong feelings and where did this controversial drink come from? 

The year of 2003 gave us ‘Finding Nemo’, freedom fries, and California’s Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was also the year that a team led by Peter Dukes, Starbucks director of espresso, developed the ‘Fall Harvest Latte’, later named the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Starbucks had seen huge success with their winter drinks such as the Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte and this new addition, a creamy espresso drink, swirled with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves was an immediate hit. Starbucks became a pioneer in using pumpkin flavor though, initially, there was no pumpkin in the drink. It wasn’t until 2015 that Starbucks succumbed to social pressure and added pumpkin purée to their PSL recipe. 

The overwhelming popularity of this Fall beverage has even led other retailers to produce pumpkin spiced items. Dunkin and McDonalds have added Pumpkin Spice lattes to their seasonal menus, numerous brands offer pumpkin spiced coffees, creamers and cold brews and we have seen the trendy flavor concept used in Cheerios, Goldfish crackers, Oreos and even Cup of Noodles! Starbucks, however, is the obvious authority on pumpkin spice as they have sold over 200 million cups to date. 

So what is the allure of this spicy mistress? According to a 2021 survey, Thanksgiving had a popularity rating of 81%, followed by Christmas with 77%. America universally loves Thanksgiving. The house is filled with the aroma of a roasting turkey and families gather together to share a meal, watch some football, express all that they are grateful for, and the finishing touch is a pumpkin pie. 

Studies have shown that the olfactory senses and memory hub in the brain are so closely linked that smells and tastes literally bring the memories of our youth back stronger than other forms of recollection. For many, this deeply rooted Thanksgiving nostalgia is what gives them such a meaningful connection to the treasured beverage. Could it be possible that the PSL haters don’t have such fond Thanksgiving memories? Or maybe they are simply coffee purists. 

Some love it, some hate it and some just want to order their drip coffee without needing to learn words like Venti and Frapaccino. Whether or not you have embraced the PSL way of life it seems certain that the Fall favorite is here to stay, that is, while supplies last. Pumpkin spiced items are typically available through early December but then you will need to wait until the Pumpkin Spiced monster rears it’s head again next year. 

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