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20 Years of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte: A Love-Hate Relationship

The iconic seasonal drink that popularized pumpkin spice is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Despite the changing seasons, the demand for Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte remains unwavering.

Every year, Starbucks releases their Pumpkin Spice Latte in the United States and Canada as the days grow shorter and the fall breeze sets in. Since its launch in 2003, this seasonal beverage has become Starbucks’ most popular and has inspired a multitude of imitators flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

In the year ending July 29, sales of pumpkin-flavored products in the U.S. reached $802.5 million, a 42% increase from the previous year. From pumpkin spice Oreos to craft beers and even Spam, there are over 1,000 pumpkin spice products available on Walmart’s website alone. The aroma and taste of pumpkin spice have become synonymous with the classic pumpkin pie.

However, alongside its immense popularity, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has also attracted a group of vocal critics and has become a target for parodies. Comedian John Oliver once famously referred to the drink as “the coffee that tastes like a candle.” There are Facebook groups dedicated to hating pumpkin spice, and anti-pumpkin spice t-shirts can be found with slogans like “Ain’t no pumpkin spice in my mug.”

Despite the detractors, the Pumpkin Spice Latte continues to thrive. In 2022, Starbucks reported a 17% increase in sales of its pumpkin spice drinks during the July-September period. A study conducted by researchers at Montclair State University found that only 8% of Twitter and Instagram posts mentioning pumpkin spice were negative.

Before the Latte: What Pumpkin Spice Was

The journey of pumpkin spice to its current fame was unexpected. Canned pumpkin and pie spices were typically associated with baking before Starbucks decided to create an autumn drink that could replicate the success of their Peppermint Mocha, a hit during the winter holidays in 2002. When customer surveys revealed that pumpkin was seen as “unique,” Starbucks took notice.

In 2003, a team gathered in a lab at Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle, surrounded by fall decorations, sipping espresso and tasting bites of pumpkin pie. After three months of experimenting with different spices, they conducted taste tests, and pumpkin spice emerged as the favorite over chocolate and caramel flavors.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was initially tested in 100 stores in Washington, D.C., and Vancouver, British Columbia, and its success led to a nationwide launch in the following year. In 2015, Starbucks made a significant change by adding real pumpkin to the recipe, enhancing the authenticity of the flavor.

Today, Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte has become a cultural sensation. It has its own dedicated social media accounts with thousands of followers and a devoted fan community. For many, the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte signifies the beginning of the fall season and holds nostalgic memories of childhood autumns.

Jason Fischer, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, explains that smell and taste have a strong connection to memories. The sense of smell triggers memories more directly than other senses, thanks to evolution and the need to remember which foods are safe to eat. This connection between smell and memory is why certain aromas, like pumpkin spice, evoke a sensory experience and tie into marketing cues for a specific product.

Not everyone, however, shares the same love for pumpkin spice. Some individuals find the artificial flavor unpleasant and choose to steer clear of pumpkin spice lattes. This diversity of opinions adds to the ongoing debate surrounding the drink.

The limited-time availability of the Pumpkin Spice Latte adds to its allure. Marketing experts suggest that Starbucks’ holiday-themed drinks, including the Pumpkin Spice Latte, keep customers eagerly anticipating their return. With each passing year, devoted fans eagerly await the announcement of the drink’s release date and embrace the tradition.

Pumpkin spice has undoubtedly made its mark on the beverage and food industry, and its journey from a humble autumn drink to a cultural phenomenon is a testament to its lasting popularity.

Perspective: The success and enduring popularity of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte are not just a result of the drink’s flavor but also the emotional connection it evokes. The familiar aroma of pumpkin spice triggers nostalgia and memories for many, making the Pumpkin Spice Latte more than just a seasonal beverage. Its limited availability and the anticipation surrounding its release date have turned it into a cultural event. Love it or hate it, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has become a symbol of fall and a part of many people’s seasonal traditions.

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