Let’s Talk About Pumpkin Spice!

Local man, August 2017.

By mid-November, Pumpkin Spice Latte season is already almost over, as Peppermint Mocha Latte season dawns on us. As you know, we at Red Rock Roasters are passionately agnostic on the subject of what you put in your coffee. We just make the best coffee around and let you do the rest.

But having read this amazing article on Peter Giuliano’s blog this weekend, I really wanted to take a minute to explore PSLs for the cultural phenomenon they are. From the article:

This time of year, we baristas are beset by those desiring Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The annual advent of the drink at the largest coffee chain in the U.S. is reason for national news. It’s a fever. A craze. Baristas this time of year get ready to either 1. make people lots of Pumpkin Spice Lattes or 2. explain to lots of people why they don’t have Pumpkin Spice Lattes on the menu. Either way, it’s a topic, and some coffee people wind up scorning the PSL as a kind of non-coffee or anti-coffee drink, a stain on the tradition of pure coffee flavor and enjoyment.

What these people miss is that we might owe the very existence of coffee in the world to the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Coffee piggybacked on the spice trade to become a globally traded commodity, and the first coffee traders were really pumpkin spice traders. Coffee has been mixed with the spices cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace and ginger since the very beginning.
This ties in with an argument I often make when snobs challenge me on the fact that 20% of our business is flavored sugar syrups: coffee has traditionally been mixed with spices, sugar, and/or milk for hundreds of years in Europe and the Middle East. Drinking coffee black is actually the new trend.
That the PSL would be a blockbuster success was a surprise even for the Starbucks team that came up with the recipe:

Of the couple dozen or so beverages Starbucks’ coffee whizzes had cooked up to mark the 2003 Fall season, the PSL scored well behind front-runner flavors like chocolate caramel and cinnamon spice in market testing.

Still, the team decided to give it a shot, never expecting it to strike the gold mine it did.

I’ve kept a note on my phone for the last few years titled “PSL Parade,” in which I paste funny image macros and memes about Pumpkin Spice, as well as personal observations, such as this gem: “Is Pumpkin Spice an expression of our collective anxiety regarding climate change? We’re all saying, ‘Doesn’t feel like Fall this Fall…better MAKE IT FALL NOW.'”
The Pumpkin Spice Latte can therefore be taken as metonymy for the entirety of coffee culture. New coffee thing (which is very, very often actually an old coffee thing that’s being revived, *cough-cough-Chemex-Toddy-Siphon-cough-cough*) hits market, is successful. Purists disdain new thing. Backers of new thing react to purists. New thing continues to be successful, eventually becoming totally standard to the point it’s not worth commenting on. New new thing hits market, etc.
It’s Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction. It’s Disney’s Circle of Life.
I’ll leave you with a variety of images that together paint a full picture of the PSL in this cultural moment:

– RL

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