What Is Pumpkin Spice and How Do We Break Free of Its Spell?

On how we arrived at the PSL – and a bunch of alternatives to it

Photo: Rimma Bondarenko / Getty Images

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Each year pumpkin spice lattes return to the Starbucks menu and the “fall aesthetic” community sweats in anticipation. Since its introduction in 2003, Starbucks has sold over 500 million PSLs – around 28 million per year. The PSL and its many offshoots – candles, syrups, cheeses, hummus, beer, dog treats – have become a phenomenon.

But what do we really know about this fall favorite? And are there better seasonal beverages to enjoy? We’ve got answers. 

The History of Pumpkin Spice

“Pumpkin spice” – or “pumpkin pie spice” as it is often labeled – is a blend of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. All the ingredients were once native to the Maluku Islands of the Pacific Ocean, an atoll dubbed the “Spice Islands” by European colonial powers eager to export and exploit local resources.

After the Dutch violently took control of the islands from the Portugese in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company created a blend called speculaaskruiden, capitalizing on the unique plants of the islands. The flavor of that blend, containing cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, coriander seed, anise, ginger, white pepper, and cardamom, will be familiar to anyone who’s tried speculaas cookies, which still rely on the combo today. 

Speculaaskruiden became popular and spread across borders quickly. Many believe that warming spice blend was the ancestor of modern pumpkin spice.

In the U.S., pumpkin spice first appeared in a “pompkin” pie recipe printed in the 1798 edition of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. In 1930, the company McCormick took the idea of the blend and ran with it, introducing the packaged blend we know today.

Why Are People So Obsessed with Pumpkin Spice Lattes?

When Starbucks launched its PSL in 2003, the company specifically targeted the drink toward social-media-using millennials with disposable income. Over time, the brand has created official PSL Twitter and Instagram accounts just to stoke the enthusiasm of the drink’s many fans.

Shawn Steiman, co-author of Coffee A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry, doesn’t think the obsession with pumpkin spice relates to the taste at all, but the experience. 

“I submit that it isn’t about the specific flavor or combination of spices used in pumpkin spice, rather, it is the fact that it is not a daily/all year experience,” Steiman says. “We like things that come rarely because it makes them more special. The fall experience on the mainland – cooler temperatures, colored leaves, the ending of the year… all make us feel a certain way.”

The flavors of fall are so much more than pumpkin. Jess Lancaster, Marketing Manager of Crema Coffee Roasters, located in Nashville, TN, notes that there are plenty of other options to jazz up the season. 

“The typical spices in [masala] chai – ginger, anise, cardamom – are so warming and taste very ‘fall’ to me,” Lancaster says. “I’m a sucker for a really great unpasteurized and fresh warm apple cider that’s steamed up with a little bit of caramel.”

If you do want to stick with coffee, Lancaster points out that you’ll often find coffees from Costa Rica on the shelves of many roasters during this time of year. “Costa Rica is known for their honey-processed coffees, meaning some of the cherry is left on the coffee bean as it’s dried,” she says. “It gives it this deep, fruity and rich chocolate character, perfect to sip on all day when the chill starts to creep in.”

Steiman passes on PSLs, too, saying he generally prefers his coffee black. With maybe one exception. “I once tasted a spectacular rosemary latte from a cafe in Kansas City,” he recalls.

Fall Drinks That Aren’t Pumpkin Spice Lattes 

Maple Sage Latte

In a mug, add real maple syrup, a pinch of ground cloves, a pinch of allspice and a pinch of fresh nutmeg. Before brewing 8 oz. of coffee, add 3-4 leaves of chopped sage into the grounds. Heat up ¼ cup of milk and foam. You can do this with a milk foamer or pour in a heat-safe glass jar with a lid and shake for 30 seconds. Pour coffee into prepared mug and top with milk. 

Mexican Mocha Latte 

In a small bowl, combine 2 Tbsp. powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder, ¼ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp. Nutmeg and ⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper. Brew 8 oz. strong coffee. Stir in dry ingredients and top with 1-3 Tbsp. heavy cream or half and half. 

Rosemary Latte

Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add 1 cup of water. Dissolve ½ cup brown sugar, stirring frequently. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add sprigs of Rosemary and let simmer for 10 minutes. Strain through strainer or cheesecloth. Steam ¼ cup milk and foam. Pour coffee into a mug and add rosemary syrup. Top with foam and a sprig of rosemary.

Hot Spiced Cider

Put fresh coffee filter in coffee maker. Fill with ¼ cup brown sugar, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 tsp. whole cloves, ½ tsp. All-spice, ¼ tsp. salt, and 1 large orange, quartered with peel. Pour apple cider into water spot of coffee maker. Brew and serve hot. 


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