In many countries in the northern hemisphere, autumn means cold weather, grey skies, and brown leaves. For baristas and coffee shops, it means customers moving away from summer beverages like cold brew and iced coffee in favour of warming seasonal drinks like the pumpkin spice latte.
Although the pumpkin spice latte was originally popularised by Starbucks, it has taken coffee consuming markets by storm in recent years, and has been replicated by cafes around the world.
So, what makes the pumpkin spice latte so popular? And just why was it invented in the first place? Read on to find out.
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Who Invented The Pumpkin Spice Latte?
Before the pumpkin spice latte, there was pumpkin pie: a seasonal dessert that’s been enjoyed in the USA for centuries as a Thanksgiving staple.
When European settlers first arrived in North America, they discovered the pumpkin and adopted it as a part of their colonial cuisine. As such, you can find American pumpkin pie recipes that date as far back as 1670. However, until the 20th century, most pumpkin pies were actually savoury dishes, often made with marjoram, thyme, and rosemary.
The sweeter pumpkin spice (or pumpkin pie spice) started appearing in cookbooks in the 1890s. It is a mixed spice, made with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice. While there are variations on the exact recipe, it is often made of these four or five spices to create an overall sweet, warming, and seasonal flavour that is reminiscent of a sweet pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin spice was first mixed into coffee and sold in 2003, when Starbucks employee Peter Dukes was tasked with creating a new drink for the brand’s holiday period lineup, which already included an eggnog latte and a peppermint mocha. He combined an espresso, with steamed milk, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg pumpkin spice sauce – topping it with whipped cream and a dusting of pumpkin spice.
This pumpkin spice latte was initially rolled out across 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington, D.C, where it was an instant hit. Today, the beverage is served at Starbucks chains in more than 50 countries.
Since its debut in 2003, it has netted the brand a staggering US $1.4 billion, selling more than 200 million units in the 12-year period between its launch and the 2015 financial year. And while the Starbucks recipe changed to include real pumpkin in 2015, the other ingredients (including the spice mixture) have largely remained untouched for almost 20 years.
A Seasonal Staple
While Starbucks might have been the inventors of the pumpkin spice latte, other cafés have created their own versions of the beverage in the years since its creation. It is now popular across high street chains and independent coffee shops alike.
Brian Loukmas is Vice President of Innovation at Monin, a commercial coffee syrup manufacturer. He says: “Traditionally, pumpkin spice lattes were made with milk, espresso, and a pumpkin puree containing the spices you’d put into a pumpkin pie.
“However, it became easier to make a syrup containing these flavours for consistency and speed of service for baristas.” The availability of pumpkin spice flavour syrups made rolling out a pumpkin spice latte much easier.
However, while many coffee shops will buy a premade pumpkin spice syrup from a supplier like Monin, some choose to make their own flavouring in-house.
Andy LoPilato is President of the Pavement Coffeehouse in Brighton, Massachusetts. He tells me that he prefers using a homemade vegan syrup that includes whole spices, real pumpkin, and fresh ginger. “It’s sweet and intensely aromatic,” he says.
A Global Pumpkin Spice Market
The pumpkin spice latte has exploded in the years since its introduction, and it is arguably one of the most popular seasonal coffee beverages in existence. Seventeen years on from its launch, it has spread far beyond cafés to inspire a range of pumpkin spice flavoured foods.
“Pumpkin has become associated with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the fun you can have during these seasons,” Brian tells me. “[I think] that’s why it’s grown so much in popularity. It can now even be found in products like potato chips, protein powder, and processed meats.”
Research conducted by Nielsen and Forbes suggests that the market of pumpkin spice flavourings and flavoured foods was worth a staggering US $600 million in 2018. While pumpkin spice latte sales accounted for over a third of this figure, the rest consisted of many different products, edible and non-edible.
These include pumpkin spice coffee creamer, pie fillings, and even flavoured dog food. Most of these products are exclusively offered on a limited-time basis, available predominantly during October and November – the months of Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Gemma Conde is Operations Manager at Coffi Co. in Cardiff, Wales. She says: “Pumpkin spice is a staple in the autumn calendar. I think it’s got to do with the increased popularity of Halloween and all things seasonal. It’s the perfect segue between those fruity summer drinks and rich, indulgent Christmas specials.”
What’s The Future For Pumpkin Spice?
In less than 20 years, the pumpkin spice latte has become so much more than a seasonal coffee shop drink. Its huge popularity means that for many coffee consumers, it’s the first sign that the holiday has arrived.
Brian says: “The pumpkin spice latte has been growing since the early 2000s. Pumpkin spice has become the flavour of fall.
“It’s evolved into a beverage that signals the start of the season and all the fun and comforts that go along with it. It’s the coffee drink of fall… and as it’s only promoted during this period each year, people will keep getting excited about it and continue to purchase it.”
Matthew Klomp is the co-owner of Spearhead Coffee in Pasa Robles, California. He says the success of the pumpkin spice latte is down to advertising.
“It’s been marketed so well that now people expect it from nearly every coffee shop no later than the first day of the season,” he says. “We usually have people asking for it a few weeks before we release it in the fall.”
Brian agrees, noting that marketing helped Starbucks to initially popularise it. He adds, however, that it has come a long way since then. “Starbucks pushed it in a big way to the point that other operators started to offer it,” he says. “As a result, today, it’s no longer considered to be a ‘Starbucks drink’.”
And despite the fact that Covid-19 has affected café and out-of-home coffee sales across the world, the pumpkin spice latte remains a popular beverage for those coffee shops that are open.
Brian tells me that in the UK, Monin has already run out of pumpkin spice syrup (as of mid October). He adds that he has also seen it the syrup used in seasonal alcoholic cocktails.
Gemma suggests that this continued popularity in the face of the pandemic is because the drink is an “affordable luxury”.
“In the current climate, [a lot of] people can’t spend their money on too much,” she says. “[However, going out for a] fancy coffee can be a small treat. It’s very indulgent and ties into the whole ‘treat yourself’ mantra”, she adds.
Gemma notes that it has the potential to convince consumers to try different coffees and possibly even take their first steps into the world of specialty coffee.
“It’s very much in the mainstream now,” she says. “And it’s a great introduction to coffee for those who would tend to pick a different drink off the menu.”
What do you think about the pumpkin spice latte? Do you buy one every year, or do you write it off as a seasonal fad? No matter what you think about it, you have to agree with one thing: it’s one of the most popular, if not the most popular seasonal coffee shop beverage in the world.
Enjoyed this? Then read The Perfect Daily Grind Holiday Gift Guide 2019
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