In case you haven’t made note of the date, let me be the first to inform you that fall has officially arrived.
Not that season that begins this year on Sept. 22. Rather, the “fall” that begins when Starbucks
starts peddling its autumn beverages. Tuesday, Aug. 24 is indeed the day, marking the earliest time the coffee chain has told the world it’s okay to drink your java with the sweeteners and spices more associated with pie.
Ever since it introduced its pumpkin spice latte — or PSL, as serious Starbucks fans are apt to call it — in 2003, the Seattle-based company has turned a flavoring into a phenomenon, one that sparked a wave of pumpkin-spice products, from cereal to vodka.
Starbucks says it has sold more than 500 million pours of its signature fall latte. Over time, it has also built an entire campaign and menu around them, adding new pumpkin drinks and food items along the way.
This year, Starbucks is even featuring a non-squash-based sip for the fall — an Apple Crisp Macchiato — leading me to ask: Is apple now the new pumpkin?
But the bigger question I often find myself asking is whether any of this stuff is palatable.
I’ve long been a Starbucks skeptic, as I simply find its coffee over-roasted and thus burnt-tasting — yes, I’m of the camp that calls the chain “Charbucks.” I’ve also had little interest in any of Starbucks’ syrup-based drinks, including the Pumpkin Spice Latte. I’m also of the camp that wants my coffee to taste like, well, coffee. I even feel a tad guilty when I occasionally put a wee bit of sugar in my morning joe.
‘It’s been six years since I last had a Pumpkin Spice Latte. At the time I called it ‘a mouthful of hot water with sugar.’
Still, as someone who has critiqued food and drink for decades, I aim to keep an open mind. It’s been six years since I last had a Pumpkin Spice Latte — at the time I called it “a mouthful of hot water with sugar and maybe a little cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg thrown in for good measure” —and I thought it might be a good moment to revisit the beverage. And for that matter, why not taste my way through the entire fall menu?
So I headed to my nearest Starbucks — in New York City, that basically translates into stepping outside my apartment door — and presented a Starbucks server with the kind of order that suggested I’m an autumn-crazed lunatic who can’t wait to rake the leaves, sport a cozy sweater and hop aboard the nearest hayride.
Has time changed my opinion of the PSL? Not really. The drink continues to suffer from the fact it has so little discernible coffee flavor and plays excessively to the American sweet-toothed crowd. I have nothing against sweetness itself, but this latte just seems like a pure sugar bomb with odd hints of bitterness and spice. As beverages go, it’s about as subtle as a Mack truck painted in Day-Glo colors.
‘I have nothing against sweetness itself, but this latte just seems like a pure sugar bomb with odd hints of bitterness and spice.’
A Starbucks spokeswoman told me that the PSL, like all Starbucks beverages, can always be customized in terms of flavorings and toppings. “It’s just how you want it,” she said. The representative also noted how the drink and other Starbucks seasonal offerings very much represent “the official start of the fall” for many of its customers.
If you’re looking for more coffee taste, Starbucks’ Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, an autumn beverage it introduced a few years ago, is a better bet. Noticed that I said “more” and not “true.” This is still a flavored, sweetened drink, but it allows some of the smooth coffee taste we associate with cold brew — essentially, java without as much acid — to come through. It’s PSL for PSL haters, in other words. The Mack truck here is more like a pickup.
And the Apple Crisp Macchiato? It seems as much a marketing ploy as a beverage, as if the Starbucks creative team suddenly realized there might be a point in time when America wakes up and realizes it doesn’t want a beverage built around a vegetable, so why not go for a fruit? I will say this drink has some genuine tart green-apple flavor, with a nice layering of caramel sweetness (as opposed to PSL’s generic sugariness). The only problem: I DON’T WANT APPLE IN MY COFFEE! An apple-based tea drink makes sense to my palate, but there’s a bizarreness to it in a coffee context.
Of course, the one foodstuff/drinkstuff category where pumpkin (and apple) really make sense is baked goods. Strangely, Starbucks still doesn’t get it quite right with some of its baked pumpkin offerings.
The Pumpkin Scone has a texture more cake-y than scone-y and it’s covered in a layer of sickly sweet icing of the sort you expect on a mass-produced snack cake (did Starbucks cut a deal with the Little Debbie folks?). The Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffin is an affront to anyone who understands that no muffin was ever made better with a glob of goo (ahem, cream cheese) in the middle. Only the Pumpkin Loaf succeeds in achieving what should be the idea behind anything with pumpkin-spice flavoring: Let the spice, not the sugar, stand out.
I liked the loaf so much I made sure to enjoy it with a big cup of coffee — namely, the non-Starbucks French roast I brew at home.