First made available to the public in 2003 in a handful of North American cafes in Vancouver and Washington, the caffeinated beverage started off as part of a focal group experiment. One in which it did not score highly, incidentally.
Hunting for new flavours
The coffee chain's then-product manager, Peter Dukes, spent months developing new seasonal drinks in the Starbucks laboratory in 2002. Despite the pumpkin-flavoured drink not being the most popular in internal testing out of the 10 created, it was chosen as the company’s new product based on the belief there was nothing else like it on the market.
Fast-forward 20 years, and loyal Starbucks customers eagerly await the return of the autumnal drink. And this year is no different.
Since distribution across the US began in 2003, the mix of pumpkin-spice sauce, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, topped with whipped cream and pumpkin-pie topping (for the first two years, the original recipe didn't contain any real pumpkin) was deemed an instant hit.
In 2014, Starbucks said it had sold 200 million pumpkin spice lattes that year alone. The PSL – as fans call it – became such an Instagrammable trend that there was the inevitable backlash and it became a sign of being “basic”, along with wearing Ugg boots and enjoying avocado toast.
The drink, which has its own Instagram account, has now grown to become a cultural signifier that summer is over and autumn has begun – or, for our part of the world, that it's finally set to get cooler.
Forbes estimated that the PSL was bringing in more than $100 million of revenue each season and its global success – with sales in more than 50 countries – has inevitably created a pumpkin market as other brands aim to cash in on the trend.
McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and other fast-food chains have all launched their own pumpkin-flavoured drinks, while products as diverse as candles, hand soap and even deodorant have been given the pumpkin-spice treatment.
Starbucks says the official ingredients at present are “pumpkin and traditional fall spice flavours combined with espresso and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice”. The key to why people crave the drink, then, is not only the hit of caffeine, but also the combination of sugar, fat and a dash of salt.
A grande PSL contains 14 grams of fat, 8g of which is saturated fat accounting for 40 per cent of a person's recommended daily total. The 240mg of sodium accounts for a tenth of your daily requirement, and that's paired with 50g of sugar – which is about four tablespoons. That combination creates a reaction in your brain that several studies indicate mimics a rush that's comparable to some drugs, with a trifecta of ingredients that humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to crave. It also contains up to 380 calories, which is the same as about four bags of crisps.
Of course nobody, least of all Starbucks, is suggesting that the PSL is a health drink. It’s that combination of ingredients that tastes good.
At-home pumpkin spice latte recipe
1 tbsp of ground nutmeg
3 cinnamon sticks
15g fresh ginger – sliced or whole
250g caster sugar
100g canned pumpkin
1. Add the fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks and nutmeg to the water
2. Bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 20 minutes – keep the lid on, to ensure the liquid does not reduce too much. It will smell very autumnal, very quickly!
3. Take the pot off the heat and strain the mixture through a clean cloth, tea towel or a coffee strainer into a bowl to make sure there are no bits or pieces of spice in the liquid
4. Clean the pot and put the strained spice liquid back in, then add the sugar and stir at low heat
5. When the sugar has dissolved, add the pureed pumpkin and mix well. This will take two to three minutes
6. When the bits of pumpkin have broken down, stop stirring and let the mixture simmer at medium heat until it thickens into a syrup – this will take 10 to 15 minutes
7. You know it's done when the mixture has a syrup-like thickness. It will be rich medium-brown in colour
8. When the syrup is ready, store it in an airtight container and add it to coffee at leisure.