There are few beverages as divisive as Pumpkin Spice Latte, a bona fide cultural phenomenon of the 2000s. Sold in coffee shops around the world in autumn, it’s fascinating to know that this sweet and spicy seasonal beverage was concocted only two decades ago. While there is little information about when the first coffee-and-pumpkin spice drink was made, its genesis is squarely attributed to the coffee giant Starbucks.
In 2003, the product manager of the company was aiming to make a beverage as successful as their 2002 winter drink Peppermint Mocha. The story goes that among the many suggestions presented by the developing team, pumpkin spice was one of the least favoured flavours. Yet, among the four final contenders were Pumpkin Spice Latte, Chocolate and Caramel Latte, Coffee with Orange and Spice, and a “Cinnamon Streusel Latte”.
When a survey was conducted to determine which drink sounded most appealing, pumpkin spice emerged as the winner. Bolstered by this information, the company moved ahead to launch this drink. There are a few accounts of other US cafes selling this beverage much before 2003. But with Starbucks, its popularity grew in astronomical proportions, both in the country as well as globally.
There is an interesting story associated with how the company first conceived this flavour profile. Since lattes are often consumed with sweet or savoury baked goods, researchers were trying out several options, of which one was a Pumpkin Pie. They agreed that both pumpkin and spice were marrying well with the velvety, slightly bitter drink. The warmth of spice, the sweetness from the pumpkin, milk and cream, and the bitterness of coffee replicated the cosiness of the season... Even visually, the burnt orange-hued drink mirrored the golden, earthy shades of autumn.
Born in a Seattle lab, Pumpkin Spice Latte was soon recreated in home kitchens. The reason was simple. The ingredients (pumpkin, vanilla extract, milk and sugar) were easily available and low-cost, and the drink took hardly a few minutes to blend. Some recipes substitute the sugar for its healthier alternative, maple syrup.
To make the base for the drink, pumpkin spice, pumpkin puree, and vanilla extract are simmered in a saucepan of milk. Once the mixture is velvety smooth, it is poured over dark roasted coffee brew and whisked until it mimics the foaminess of the store-bought variant. The drink is then crowned with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream and a few pods of clove and cinnamon sticks.