Oh, Fall. You are my favorite time of year. The heat of summer is growing thin. The leaves are beginning their brilliant transformations. The nights possess a cool edge, and the sunsets seem more rich in color and depth than any other time of the year. The entire harvest is culminating into one season — apples, pumpkins, nuts and more are abundant.

But wait… what is that over yonder, appearing on the horizon? It smells of spice and sweetness. It’s shadow  stretches from across the land. Like Frankenstein or the the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, it has been dormant all year, and now as the season begins to change, it is emerging from its hibernation. No man can prevent its coming.

It is the Pumpkin Spice Latte, harbinger of Autumn. It is already upon us.

From where did this drink come from? Who first designed this sickly concoction? How did this simple beverage become the subject of so many Instagram stories, too many to count, and have over 100,000 followers on Twitter? Are these signs of a growing syrup and espresso based cult? A topical corporate theme to drive customers into stores as the weather turns fouler? To answer these questions, we must go to the very beginning. We must go into the very heart of darkness. We must go to Starbucks.

In the early 2000s, the Starbucks machine was really starting to kick into gear. Having successfully launched other holiday themed drinks like the Eggnog Latte (AKA the greatest drink to ever exist) and the Peppermint Mocha (which is disgusting), the taste specialist scientists at Starbucks began development on a drink that would match the fall season.

Peter Dukes

The small group, led by Starbucks’ director of Espresso America for Starbucks, Peter Dukes, worked in the dimly lit, bare-walled, 7th floor, semi-dungeon dubbed the “Liquid Lab” at Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters. Inspired by typical fall decorations and flavors, the team began to experiment with the idea of an espresso drink flavored with pumpkin. Legend has it that group sat around taking bites of pumpkin pie and then sipping on espresso in an effort to blend the seemingly contradictory flavors.

Naysayers circled around the group like vultures on the African Serengeti, clinging to their venti Pike Place coffees and soy White Chocolate Mochas. Doubts began to slip through the cracks in the walls. Pumpkin and espresso? Was this a bold new frontier or a fool’s dream? The combination of a gourd and coffee beans had never been done before.

Still the “Flavor-Purveyors,” as I have now decided to call them, pushed on. Before long, they had an idea for a latte that would encapsulate fall in a cup – barely noticeable pumpkin flavor, covered in a sugary wave of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, along with the usual espresso and milk. They took their idea to highest reaches of the Starbucks corporate ladder, and despite all the obstacles, were given permission to carry out their flavor research and development.

Over the next three-months, working day and night, senses fried from caffeine overload, the team perfected the recipe. There were tragic setbacks. There were bold breakthroughs. The addition of whip cream dusted with pumpkin pie seasoning was a pivotal moment. Finally, the team settled on a final recipe. The Flavor-Purveyors emerged from their office smelling of spice and determination. Many had not seen sunlight for weeks (because they live in Seattle).

The Prototypical PSL

It was time for the true test. The newly dubbed Pumpkin Spice Latte would be offered in 100 stores around Vancouver and Washington D.C. as part of a test run. Baristas were trained. Store managers were prepped. Pumpkins everywhere shivered with anticipation.

Within days the results began to pour in. The results were overwhelmingly positive. “Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” Dukes said in an interview with Starbucks in 2014. The popularity, and legend of the drink has only continued to grow since then.

In terms of the raw numbers, the Pumpkin Spice market has grown to a half-billion dollar industry since Starbucks’ release. Consumers can now find pumpkin spiced beers, ciders, pastries, candles and more from a variety of companies. Even SPAM® is getting in on the pumpkin spice action.

Dukes himself readily admits the impact the Pumpkin Spice Latte has had on the industry. The drink has become “more than just a beverage,” he said in that same 2014 interview, “it has become a harbinger of the season.” One can almost imagine the fire-streaked skies, the swirling gyres and the cracks of lighting that must accompanied Dukes’ comments.

The ubiquitous presence of the Pumpkin Spice Latte is, for now, a standard menu addition for any coffee-shop wishing to stay relevant in the Fall market. Other national chains besides Starbucks have released their own Pumpkin Spice drinks, and every year there is a frivolous buzz about who will be the first to drop their Pumpkin Spice drinks and officially bring the tides of Autumn upon us. Eat your heart out John Keats.

Whether you love it or hate it, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is here to stay. For now, only one question remains: would you like whip cream on your latte?

By Aldo Moreno



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