Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, now making the rounds for the 18th straight autumn, set off a trend so widespread that it has become the butt of jokes, the inspiration for pancakes, ice cream, scented candles and more, and is probably the most-copied drink in the world. But the imitators have gone beyond the original, and now new fall flavors have emerged in seasonal beverages.
“Pumpkin is always king, but there are so many fall flavors,” said Mel Maryott, director of product marketing for 360-unit Scooter’s Coffee, based in Omaha, Neb. “It gives different options for people who aren’t necessarily pumpkin fans.”
Of course, it’s not actually the pumpkin that customers are after, but the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and other spices that are traditionally used to flavor pumpkin pie. In fact, the original PSL didn’t have pumpkin at all. The drink wasn’t introduced as a pumpkin-and-spice latte, but as a latte with the same spices traditionally used in pumpkin desserts — in Starbucks’ case it is specifically cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The squash was only introduced after consumer activists with poor reading comprehension accused Starbucks of false advertising.
At any rate, Scooter’s is one of many coffeehouses that now has a pumpkin spice latte, but it has moved beyond that, both with an enhanced drink with a similar theme — the Pumpkin Caramelicious — and the Maple Vanilla Latte.
The Pumpkin Caramelicious starts with espresso spiked with caramel sauce, and it’s topped with textured milk made with spices including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. That’s finished with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle.
The Maple Vanilla Latte is espresso with milk, maple syrup, vanilla and ginger, and has proven to be such a popular flavor combination that Scooter’s also introduced a maple waffle sandwich as a permanent menu item.
Peet’s Coffee, which has around 250 coffeehouses nationwide, is also working with maple this fall, using a custom syrup that was developed for it some years ago by the syrup specialists at Monin.
“It was very interesting trying to develop this flavor, because people experience maple in different ways,” said Patrick Main, senior beverage innovator of the chain based in Emeryville, Calif.
He said some people equate maple with artificially flavored products such as Log Cabin syrup, while others identify with a maple doughnut or maple syrup from a small farm in Vermont.
“We needed something that read ‘maple’ to a wide audience,” he said.
“At one point we were steaming maple sugar into the milk and adding espresso, and it was delicious, but we ended up putting it in front of customers and they were like, ‘This doesn’t taste like maple to me.’”
So they developed a syrup with Monin with concentrated maple flavor, “plus some natural ‘baked notes’ that they’re sort of wizards at. It ended up evoking a stack of hotcakes with maple, because that was how to create the association in people’s minds.”
Baked notes are also a key element in Starbucks’ latest innovation, the Apple Crisp Macchiato, which is espresso with apple and brown sugar flavors topped with steamed milk and a spiced apple drizzle — made with apple juice, apple purée, cinnamon and nutmeg — that is squeezed on top of the drink in a lattice style meant to evoke the top of an apple pie, according to Raegan Powell, senior manager on the Starbucks research and development team.
In comments on Starbucks’ “stories” website, Powell said the idea for apples in coffee stemmed from the popularity of pumpkin, since both of them are harvested in the fall.
In spring of 2020 the company began testing apple items such as apple maple syrup, apple cider doughnuts and assorted pies, cakes and crisps.
“Creating an ingredient with a spicy baked apple flavor was crucial to be able to bridge an autumn red apple to espresso,” Powell said. “Consider how well a delicious slice of warm apple pie pairs with a cup of coffee or how well the combination of Starbucks roast signature espresso pairs with warm spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.”
Main of Peet’s Coffee said his approach to pumpkin spice drinks is meant to appeal to customers who wanted something milder than a traditional PSL, “which we like because it lets the coffee flavor come through.”
The spicing of its latte is a two-step process, with a milder pumpkin spice syrup added to the milk as it’s steamed, and then topping it off with a blend of freshly ground ginger, clove, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon for which baristas use a customized ¼ teaspoon scoop.
“So the sensory experience of the beverage is such that you bring it to your nose and mouth and get the aroma of ground spices.”
Dutch Bros Coffee, with 500 locations, also has an enhanced coffee drink related to the PSL, the Caramel Pumpkin Brûlée, which has returned this year after its debut last fall.
“It’s a twist on the traditional pumpkin spice latte,” senior product manager Listel Bjorck said.
The biggest difference is that it’s not a latte but breve — steamed espresso with half & half — so it’s richer. It also has salted caramel and raw sugar.
“It’s a little bit sweeter, and what’s really lovely is it’s not as pumpkin-forward, but you still get all these cozy seasonal notes,” she said.
The drink also has a “soft top,” Dutch Bros’ version of flavored aerated milk that has become a popular finishing element at many coffeehouses. Bjorck describes it as being like an uncongealed marshmallow.
Brand new at Dutch Bros is the Cinnamon Swirl Oat Milk Latte, made with espresso, vanilla, cinnamon and oat milk. Bjorck said it’s a good introduction to oat milk for customers looking for dairy alternatives, particularly since oat and cinnamon go so well together — just think of how often it appears with oatmeal at breakfast, or in oatmeal cookies.
But Bjorck sees other spices having potential for seasonal coffee beverages, such as cardamom, which is a staple in Turkish coffee.
Main of Peet’s coffee agrees. “There’s a lot of curiosity around world flavors — we’ve had a lot of success bringing in different spices in different ways,” he said.
For example, for Peet’s Holiday Spice Latte, the milk itself is steamed with vanilla syrup along with the ginger, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon and allspice that are sprinkled on top for the coffeehouse’s pumpkin spice latte.
Main said infusing the spices directly into the milk as it steams has “a much stronger effect.”
Bjorck said Dutch Bros is testing a Sweater Weather Chai Latte made with a chai spice blend along with cinnamon, nutmeg, a soft top and two shots of “white coffee.”
White coffee is made with the same beans as the chain’s private reserve, but at a lower temperature, resulting in a nuttier and more tea-like drink with extra caffeine, since the more you roast coffee the more the caffeine is cooked out of it.
“We like to say it’s half-baked, fully charged,” she said.
Bjorck said that for future trends in coffee flavors she likes to look at what’s happening in ice cream and cocktails, “because there’s a lot of crossover there.” She said she sees a future in lemon, basil and pineapple.
But there’s still plenty of runway for apple in hot beverages, as can be seen in the Apple Blast at Caribou Coffee, which is hot apple cider and caramel topped with whipped cream and caramel. It’s available over ice or blended with ice as well as hot.
Gretchen Hashemi-Rad, Caribou’s beverage category manager, said apple cider and the apple blast had been available as an off-menu item year-round until spring of 2020, but they decided to bring it back as a limited-time offer just for the fall.
Hot Cider is also the name of a cocktail at The Press Room in Chicago, where Michigan apple cider is simmered with cinnamon sticks, star anise, peppercorns, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, orange peel and a pinch of salt. That’s spiked with bourbon and calvados and heated to order using the steaming wand of the restaurant’s espresso machine.
“The result is a somewhat booze-forward cider with multiple layers of flavor and is dangerously easy to drink,” managing partner Jeff Williams said.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary