It's September 22 – the first day of fall – but if you're like many pumpkin spice-loving Americans, you've been indulging in your favorite seasonal beverage for weeks. Starbucks released their popular fall favorite, the pumpkin spice latte (or PSL for short) on September 6 this year – a full week earlier than in 2015.
This year marks the 13th birthday of the PSL, and the pumpkin spice craze doesn't seem to be slowing down at all. Grocery store chain Trader Joe's, for example, has some 70 pumpkin spice products on its shelves this year, up from about 60 in 2015.
From beer and tortilla chips to dish soap and dog food, you can find a pumpkin spice variety of just about everything come September.
The birth of pumpkin spice mania
Starbucks is credited with launching the pumpkin spice craze with its first release of the seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003. At the time, the beverage innovation team wanted to create an espresso beverage that epitomized the comfort and nostalgia of fall. They gathered in the "Liquid Lab" in Starbucks' Seattle headquarters, where they alternated between bites of pumpkin pie and sips of espresso until the flavor profile was perfect.
The drink debuted in 100 stores throughout Vancouver and Washington, D.C. that year, and in Starbucks stores throughout the U.S. in fall of 2004.
What makes pumpkin spice so popular?
"We certainly didn’t know thirteen years ago when we first introduced the original PSL that it would turn into our most popular seasonal beverage of all time," a Starbucks representative told 10Best. "It has come to represent the essence of the season: coziness, fall spices, pumpkins and cooler weather, mixed with a little nostalgia."
Eliza Cross, author of the cookbook Pumpkin it Up!, grew up eating her mother's pumpkin spice bread and flaky-crusted pumpkin pie – a childhood pastime that inspired her own love for all things pumpkin. She has a similar theory on the popularity of the flavor profile.
"From an emotional standpoint, pumpkin spice evokes the comfort of a cozy kitchen and good things baking in the oven," says Cross. "More than any other flavor, I think pumpkin spice encompasses the sweet comfort of being home."
Continue reading below...
Where did pumpkin spice come from?
While pumpkin spice skyrocketed to popularity beginning in 2003, the blend of cinnamon, cloves, dried ginger, nutmeg and other spices can be traced back to American Cookery, a cookbook by Amelia Simmons published in 1796 (her blend of ginger and allspice was used in a recipe for pumpkin pudding).
In 1936, the Washington Post published a recipe for "Spice Cake of Pumpkin Newest Dish," and by the middle of the 20th century, spice giant McCormick stocked Pumpkin Pie Spice blend on grocery store shelves across the country. The rest, as they say, is history.
Photo courtesy of Jack Gruber
"The pumpkin has been part of America's culinary repertoire for centuries," explains Cross, when asked if the pumpkin spice craze is here to stay, "so I like to think that people will continue to enjoy eating it and finding creative new ways to cook with it."
It's more about the spice than the pumpkin
Take a look at the label of your favorite pumpkin flavored products and you'll quickly see that there's a big difference between "pumpkin" and "pumpkin spice." Until 2015, the Starbucks PSL didn't contain any real pumpkin at all; this holds true for many pumpkin-flavored products. In fact, while the pumpkin spice craze continues to grow, sales of fresh pumpkins have actually dropped in 2011, 2013 and 2014, according to Nielsen.
That's starting to change. Last fall, Starbucks decided to add real pumpkin puree to their PSLs while ditching the caramel coloring. Another big producer of pumpkin beverages – craft breweries – are also reaching for the real thing to flavor their autumn-inspired pumpkin ales.
Not everyone's a fan
As passionate as PSL fans are about their favorite beverage – @TheRealPSL has nearly 18,000 followers on Twitter – others are just as passionate about protesting the fall craze. Sean Bauer spends his autumns outside a Philadelphia Starbucks helping to "stop premature pumpkin spicing." His hashtag (#stopprematurepumpkinspicing) enjoys a spike each year in late summer.
So what's the next pumpkin spice?
It looks like pumpkin spice is here to stay, but what's the next big fall flavor trend? Starbucks is hoping it'll be the Chile Mocha, their new seasonal beverage that debuted alongside the PSL on September 6.
"We’re always looking to offer our customers both the familiar and the unexpected," a Starbucks rep told 10Best. "Chile Mocha’s surprising, yet approachable heat takes its inspiration from other sweet and spicy flavors."
Meanwhile Cross has her eye on a few other food trends, including Honduras chocolate, homemade ice cream syrups and "pulled" bacon.
"A whole slab of bacon is brined, braised, shredded and served on buns or in tacos," explains Cross. Now that's a food trend we can get behind!