Back in 2003, some wild-brained beverage executives decided to pour espresso on pumpkin pie, and it became the recipe for a cultural phenomenon now known simply as "PSL."
Prior to the limited release of Starbucks' now-iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte that October, pumpkin was largely relegated to Halloween decorations and Thanksgiving desserts. But now, 20 years and more than 600 million PSLs later, pumpkin spice has become ubiquitous with not just fall, but all things in the fall, from Oreos to air freshener.
According to NielsenIQ, pumpkin spice products amassed roughly $802 million in sales last fiscal year — and that's not counting coffee shop or restaurant menu items.
Despite that sugar high, some sources believe pumpkin may have hit its peak. In an August 2023 article, Fortune notes that unit sales dropped 1.5% last fiscal year after flatlining the year before. Meanwhile, the number of pumpkin spice products decreased 5% over the past two fiscal years.
Spam and ramen noodles may no longer be counted among the more than 3,000 pumpkin spice-flavored products available (thank goodness), but there are still plenty of offshoots and PSLs to be had, with virtually every coffee shop offering its own take. The trend isn't going anywhere; rather, it's matured into a part of daily life with (slightly) more appropriate products, whether that be Philadelphia cream cheese or Poo-Pourri. This season, searches for "pumpkin spice makeup" and "pumpkin spice nails" are trending alongside "pumpkin spice donuts" and "pumpkin spice Cheerios," illustrating the phenomenon's infiltration into American culture.
Pumpkin spice's staying power is partly due to its seasonal release, despite it sowing the seeds of sweater weather ever and ever earlier. This year, Starbucks' PSL dropped on August 24, well before temperatures started to fall and a month before the official start of autumn. Still, that historically early debut came a week after the release of Dunkin's own Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte.
Limited-time products create anticipation and a sense of FOMO that's heightened by the kinds of social media posts that helped turn the PSL into a veritable personality trait. A 2023 Montclair University study found more than 21,000 related posts in just the first month following Starbucks' annual release this year. And just 5% of those posts negatively portrayed the trend, signaling widespread acceptance of PSL's "basicness."
The flavor also taps into the nostalgia of the season. Fall heralds cocooning and the comforts of home, holidays and the joy of family togetherness and traditions. It's a time when we slow down following the blazing pace of summer and reconnect around the campfire, and the PSL manages to capture all of that in a cup.
Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte almost didn't come to be. Preliminary taste tests revealed chocolate, caramel and even cinnamon as more appealing to consumers. But in the end, the PSL won out for its then-uniqueness.
Should that inspire you in your own culinary endeavors, The Spice& Tea Exchange offers custom blends of spices and sweeteners, along with recipes to help get you started. Its Pumpkin Pie sugar and spice blends kick the classic flavors up a notch with the addition of orange zest and star anise. Try them in the store's recipes for pumpkin waffles or boozy pumpkin pie malts, or see what else you can come up with.
SPICE IT UP
If you'd rather have more time for frolicking in the crisp air and autumn leaves, you can add these local pumpkin spice offshoots to your next PSL run:
*Clumpie's seasonal Pumpkin Cheesecake and Pumpkin Caramel Cake ice creams
*Nothing Bundt Cakes' array of pumpkin spice cakes, available while supplies last
*NoBaked Cookie Dough's Pumpkin Spice and Pumpkin Chocolate Chip seasonal batter flavors
*MoonPie's limited-edition pumpkin spice variety
*Hot Chocolatier's special-edition pumpkin spice bonbons and other confections
*Cupcake Kitchen's seasonal pumpkin pie flavor