Earlier this year, a news tip began circulating among the members of a Facebook group called the Leaf Rakers Society. The story—initially a rumor—was more portentious than the season’s first frost. It was this: Starbucks had moved up the seasonal release date for its pumpkin spice latte from just after Labor Day to Aug. 28.
That was news? Yes, if you’re a pumpkin spice latte fan. And there are millions of those.
Pumpkin spice latte’s enduring popularity likely stems from Americans’ nostalgia and reverence for Thanksgiving (above), where pumpkin pie is a staple.
Starbucks’ PSL—universal shorthand for the drink—is now the most popular seasonal beverage in the chain’s history, with north of 200 million cups sold. The PSL not only has countless fans on Twitter, it’s also on Twitter. The latte’s page boasts nearly 17,000 followers.
But why? The PSL is just an espresso with a few baking spices and a lot of sugar thrown in. What’s the big deal? According to Montana Miller, a professor at Bowling Green State University’s department of popular culture, the mania over the PSL likely has to do with longing and memory—with just a dash of anxiety on top.
Peter Dukes (top) developed the PSL by using ingredients including (above) pumpkin, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger.
“Pumpkin spice seems to have taken off to an unusual degree, perhaps because it has such nostalgic connections to an element of American culture that we are increasingly afraid of losing touch with,” she said, naming cherished institutions such as family, hometown, pumpkin carving and Thanksgiving dinner. It may be that, as the middle class continues to lose its once-firm grip on its place in the American tableau, we all are gripping our PSLs a bit tighter.
The PSL’s flavor proved so popular that a plethora of other food brands have since knocked it off, giving us products like Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, yogurt and even bagels.
Poignant stuff, especially considering that all Starbucks was looking for 15 years ago was another hit drink. In 2003, an R&D team led by director of espresso Peter Dukes assembled at the chain’s Seattle headquarters, eating some pumpkin pie and washing it down with espressos. Something about the flavor combination held promise and—fast-forward a bit—Dukes’ team concocted a coffee drink with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove (and, notably, no pumpkin: See box below). “Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be,” Dukes later said. The new offering was an immediate hit and found its way to 100 units around Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and Washington, D.C., sold under the name “Fall Harvest Latte” before being changed to “Pumpkin Spice Latte.”
Use your gourd When the PSL first hit the market in 2003, Starbucks was a pioneer in using the flavor of pumpkin. There was just one little problem: The drink actually had no pumpkin in it—and would not for the next 12 years. Enter food blogger Vani Hari (aka “Food Babe”), who began putting pressure on the chain to reveal the beverage’s ingredients. Cornered by the resulting public demand, in 2015, Starbucks headquarters announced its “big decision to use real pumpkin.” Actually, it’s puree of pumpkin, but at least it’s in there.
Meanwhile, as legions of fans beat a path to the nearest Starbucks, other brands have wised up and rolled out a staggering array of pumpkin-spiced varietals, including Cheerios, Chobani yogurt and Thomas’ English muffins. The flavor “translates so broadly across so many platforms,” said Kazia Jankowski, founder of consultancy KJ Culinary. “What’s funny is that it didn’t have a name as just ‘warm spice blend,’ and it does now as pumpkin spice latte. It’s the same aromatic spices. That’s the thing that makes it universal.”
Maybe too universal. In recent years, PSL lovers have come under attack for being “basic,” in the way that Uggs, selfies and Forever 21 are “basic” (read: mass). But then the PSL haters got haters of their own, and, while they squabble, a salient fact remains: Starbucks sells the PSL only while supplies last—usually until early December. So, basic or not, if you want one, you better move.