So what is a pumpkin spice? What is pumpkin, even, now that we know that almost everything in the can is “just whatever kind of squash?” Whether you are an elite coffee connoisseur, someone trying to add a festive note to their leaf-peeping, or a pan-seasonal lover of all coffee drinks all year round, you owe it to yourself to know more about pumpkin spice. Because whether it's your thing or not, it is right now completely surrounding you. And it doesn't always (sit down, I'm sorry) include pumpkin.
How did we get here?
As much credit as Starbucks deserves for setting the stage for today’s fancy coffee world, we cannot give them sole credit for the pumpkin spice craze. Humans have long been beguiled by some versions of the flavor profile we today associate with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves—and maybe a little allspice or mace—for literally hundreds of years. Hundreds!
Indeed, the unique blend of autumn-evoking spices became so intrinsically tied to the festive gourd with which they were so often cooked that recipes—and even products—named “pumpkin spice” began to gain traction in the mid-20th century. Baltimore spice company McCormick introduced its “Pumpkin Pie Spice” in a can in 1934; the company would pare the name down to simply “Pumpkin Spice” in the '60s, allowing chefs to truly express the versatility of these canonical flavors. (Today the product is once again called “Pumpkin Pie Spice,” and includes a recommendation to use in drinks or on toast.)
From there, creative cooks, bakers, baristas, and coffee-bean-flavorers took up the pumpkin spice gauntlet slowly. Until one little company in Seattle blew the lid off that pumpkin like so many Gallagher pranks, and in 2003, the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL, was born. It’s all been a nutmeg-flavored race to the bottom since then.
But is it made of pumpkin?
The amazing thing about pumpkin spice—maybe about as amazing as pumpkin being both a gourd and a squash, please stay with me here—is that despite “pumpkin spice” having pumpkin in its name, it doesn't necessarily have any pumpkin in it. In fact, you're probably not surprised to hear that pumpkin spice candles, cream cheese, dog treats, Oreos, body lotion, and seltzer water do not actually contain pumpkin. Pumpkin spice is an ethos, an autumnal ideal, a Proustian reverie. It's not necessarily, you know, pumpkin. (Though some indie shops, and even major chains like Caribou, do go so far as to toss a little actual pumpkin into the pumpkin spice mix.)
When alarmist blogger FoodBabe “broke open” the Pumpkin-Spice-Lattes-do-not-contain-actual-pumpkin story in 2014, it ignored literal generations of using cinnamon and nutmeg to evoke a feeling. Whether your favorite pumpkin spice creation contains actual pumpkin is beside the point—does it make you feel like putting on a cozy hoodie? Yeah. Right there with you, buddy. (For their part, Starbucks added pumpkin purée into the formula one year later—but we still think you need the hoodie.)
Pumpkin Spice Today
Despite the “basic” backlash PSL has received, there's nothing cooler than reclaiming the uncool, and to many, there's still nothing more autumn-cozy than those iconic flavors of the season. Coffee companies that aren't Starbucks know this, too, and pumpkin spice remains an inspiration for comforting fall drinks at independent cafés from coast to coast.
Here are a few of the current takes on the PSL legacy:
Either/Or Cafe (Portland, OR) — Hot Buttered Yam
This sweet and salty drink by Portland's Either/Or is made with yam (not technically a squash or a gourd—but still orange and autumnal!) combined with black tea, caramelized maple bourbon, and cinnamon-chocolate salt. Either/Or owner Ro Tam tells Sprudge that “a lot of people describe it as Thanksgiving in a cup because of the sweet and savory aspect.” The popular drink is available in person at Either/Or, or in a shelf-stable bottled version available at select cafes on the west coast, and at New Seasons grocery store coffee bars in the Pacific Northwest.
Gregorys Coffee (New York, NY) — Smashing Pumpkin
Embracing year-round cold-brew season is NYC roaster Gregorys, whose Smashing Pumpkin seasonal offering is actually a cold brew drink. The roaster describes it as “creamy cashew milk mixed with our homemade pumpkin spice and signature cold brew. A decadent reminder that pumpkin season is here!”—even if it doesn't include… pumpkin.
Camber Coffee (Bellingham, WA) — Harvest Moon Latte
Camber bar manager Gloria Baldwin created the cafe's Harvest Moon syrup to evoke a true autumn feel. Baldwin tells Sprudge she “wanted to achieve a deeper, richer quality” than the typical PSL profile, “without using any actual pumpkin.” The syrup contains molasses, brown sugar, and a lot of cloves, says Baldwin, along with cardamom, star anise, and smoked sea salt. Drinks made with Harvest Moon syrup are garnished with nutmeg and smoked sea salt using a stencil to create a crescent moon shape—awww!
Baltimore (home of McCormick's Pumpkin Pie Spice!) roaster Black Acres dives full on into the fall feelings with this elevated nitro cold brew. Coffee program director Matt Nierenberg says the drink is based on a honey-processed Colombian coffee from Nariño that has inherent notes of caramel and fruit, blended with a pumpkin spice syrup and agave, fresh ground spices, and Minor Figures oat milk. “We love to serve this up on our nitro system, which adds just one more layer of creamy richness to the drink. The syrup can also be added to a hot latte to help with the crisp fall mornings we have in Maryland during these months.
For those who'd like to make something similar at home, Nierenberg offers this recipe for a small batch of the pumpkin spice syrup. Spoiler: it contains pumpkin!
B.A.R. Pumpkin Spice Syrup
1 1/4 cup of water
1 cup of Agave
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp of nutmeg, ground cloves, ground ginger
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
Simmer the water and agave together until they are combined. Add in all of the spices and pumpkin on a low simmer for about eight minutes. Strain into a jar and allow to cool. A very fine mesh sieve, cheese cloth, or nut milk bag works well for this. Once cool add the vanilla extract. Store in your fridge. For best flavors grind your spices right before use, and use fresh ginger.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network and is based in New York City. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.