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So, here’s the thing: I’ve never tried a pumpkin spice latte before.
There’s no one reason I’ve never tried the beverage, which is loved by many and loathed by an equal amount. I love coffee, cappuccinos and all caffeinated beverages, but I’ve somehow never gotten around to taking the plunge.
As a first-time tryer, I wanted to first find out why people love this drink and its eponymous flavour so much.
Fortunately for me, Kate Bray was here to guide me through just why she thinks pumpkin spice is everything nice.
“I go to Starbucks a lot, and I can’t think of a drink that’s more iconic, that returns with such hype year after year. People get excited for it - they can only get it for so long every year,” she says.
Starbucks first launched its Pumpkin Spice Latte – now known as the PSL – in 2003. The recipe remained unchanged until 2015, when the company added pumpkin to its drink recipe after customers complained it lacked real pumpkin flavour. The company also released the PSL earlier than ever this year, on Aug. 25.
This was all news to me, but that probably comes as no surprise.
Starbucks espresso Americas director Peter Dukes, who led the charge on the PSL drink design team, says in the drink’s origin story that it was tested in 100 stores across Vancouver and Washington, D.C. to resounding success before being officially launched 17 years ago. With customers having continued buying the drink more and more, year after year, it’d be hard to dispute Dukes’ opinion that the PSL has become a “harbinger of the season.”
Just how popular is this latte? I turned to social media to find my answer. There are 1.6 million #PSL posts on Instagram, and nearly 78,000 tagged #PSL2020. The seasonal beverage even has its own official Twitter account, @TheRealPSL, with more than 96,000 followers.
Bray, 28, first tried the PSL after moving to Halifax in 2010. For her, the beverage felt like the perfect way to mark the beginning of September: her birthday month and favourite season.
“I think it was because it’s so warm, tasty and sweet: it’s cozy,” she says. “I’ve always really loved the fall because of my birthday, the back-to-school season and how it feels like a fresh start.”
Not just the latte
The beverage obsession does not seem to stop there. Businesses in Nova Scotia, including the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC), have also gotten in on the pumpkin spice season.
NSLC communications advisor Beverley Ware says fall sales for pumpkin spice beverages have climbed over the last few years, with its sales up 34.5 per cent in 2018 over 2017 numbers, followed by a further 21 per cent increase in 2019 over 2018.
Ware says it’s the pumpkin-flavoured beers from East Coast producers - including Breton Brewing, Nine Locks, Propeller and Upstreet breweries - that customers are flocking to, as they become evermore experimental with their beer tastes and selections.
“There’s a strong element of supporting local beer in our craft beer customers, who are now more willing to try pumpkin beer made by our local producers,” she says.
Starbucks also seems to have realized its customers might want to expand into different pumpkin flavour options, as it released a new PSL varietal in 2019 called the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew.
This new offering has become Bray’s go-to fall beverage, as she and many other Starbucks customers graduate from the PSL to the cold brew – PCCB, anyone? – and when she does order a PSL, she takes it half-sweet. For her, the latte will always remain a mainstay because of her memories associated with it.
“There will always be a lot of nostalgia and seasonal memories wrapped up in the PSL for me. It makes me remember studying for tests with friends at Starbucks, or just hanging out and catching up. We didn’t have a lot of money, so a six-dollar latte felt like a splurge for us,” she says.
Approaching this like any true taste-tester would, I asked Bray what to watch for. She told me to expect notes of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, with some vanilla or even caramel kicking in at the end of each sip.
I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly worried as I blew on the drink to cool it down before taking that first sip. Years of wondering had led me to this point of whether to hop onto the PSL wagon or not. What would be worse: enjoying it or hating it? I swear these thoughts lasted for only five seconds, despite taking much longer for you to read.
So, I took my sip, and recorded a video for you all to experience it with me. It took a second for the beverage to work through the whipped cream – Starbucks, why so much? – but when I finally tasted it, I felt surprised.
It was neither as sweet, nor as spicy, as I was expecting. I quite enjoyed it! And I think it really made me realize jumping on this bandwagon wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
Am I a total convert? Probably not.
Would I buy one again, whether from Starbucks or otherwise? Absolutely.