Pumpkin spice latte: a taste test

This love story begins rather simply.

When I was in college, loading myself up on caffeine was the only way to make it through endless classes and shifts at my local bookstore. I discovered something powerful then: coffee. That divine beverage was responsible for getting me through many a late evening . . . though I couldn’t always stomach the straight stuff. I need lots of milk and sugar. Enter the latte.

I began consuming espresso-pumped drinks in my early twenties, and that’s around the time the pumpkin spice latte — or the PSL, to those of us in the Cool Kid PSL Club — appeared in my life. Never one to shy away from anything pumpkin flavored, I started ordering them at my Borders cafe. That amounted to one per shift — and it’s just gotten worse since then.

Eh, and I wonder why I’ve gained weight.

As we all know, the yearly appearance of the PSL deserves a ticker-tape parade in Meg Land. My sister and I marked the time of its arrival and set a coffee date. Since it was still 90 degrees in Maryland in early September, we got frappuccinos — extra whip. I don’t do things halfway.

It’s been weeks since the PSL arrived in cafes and coffee shops across the land. I’ve made it my goal — nay, my mission — to try every pumpkin-themed drink in the Washington, D.C. area. Though I once declared Dunkin’ Donuts to have the best PSL, I’m going to contradict that. In three years, my horizons have expanded. But because I’m just one thirsty woman, I know there are many I’ve missed — including Panera’s PSL, which is surprising; I probably owe rent to my local branch. But the fall is young, my friends!

Any devoted PSL consumer knows their favorite drink comes in at least two varieties: hot and cold. You could get into even more gradations of this, based on whether or not you like whipped cream (I do) and spice (yep), plus whether your cold PSL is blended (like a frap) or simply on ice (like Dunkin’ Donuts’ drink). I’ve tried to sample as many varieties as possible, though my budget and stomach don’t always cooperate. Just know this sampling is not comprehensive.

To the nominees, I’d like to say what a difficult decision this was. Know that, in my eyes, you’re all winners — and you should be so proud of your deliciousness. Know that even the fifth best PSL is still a darn good drink, and I hope there are no hard feelings. You know I’ll be back.


the taste tests


5. Dunkin’ Donuts — cold (over ice)

Dunkin’ Donuts’ PSL is on ice, meaning it’s not blended like a frappuccino or milkshake — and that’s why it’s in fifth place. Because I drink it entirely too fast. It’s basically iced coffee with pumpkin syrup (in fact, that might be exactly what it is . . .), and I usually consume the whole thing before I’m even back at my desk. This saddens me — but also keeps me coming back for more. So well played, Dunkin’ Donuts.


4. Einstein Bros Bagels — cold (blended)

The blended PSL at Einstein’s is very much like Starbucks’ PSL frap — only more pumpkin-y. There’s no mistaking the autumnal awesomeness (like that?) of this one. My sister offered me a sip of hers — and I took three. It’s addictive. It’s sweet without being cloying — less sweet than, say, the Dunkin’ Donuts iced PSL. It lacks any of the distinctive coffee taste I expect from a Starbucks PSL, which might work for you.


3. Starbucks — cold (blended)

So rich, so creamy . . . so cold and fattening. It’s hard to beat Starbucks’ pumpkin spice frappuccino, which is easily my sister’s favorite. (And our PSLs, pictured above, are twins.) It’s dessert in a cup, and the filling nature of the drink might have you wanting to skip dinner — but it’s worth it. Promise.


2. Einstein Bros Bagels — hot

Of every beverage on this highly scientific list, I find the hot PSL at Einstein’s to be the most pumpkin-y. It’s also melt-in-your-mouth delicious and has less of a “coffee” taste and aftertaste than Starbucks’ version. It’s sweeter, lighter and creamier — for fans who prefer their espresso drinks with less espresso. I can respect that.


1. Starbucks — hot

The first. The classic. I’d never known love until Starbucks’ beloved PSL came into my life. Still the best-loved of all the beverages, the hot PSL has a special place in my heart — though I tend to order the iced version from DD more often these days. Mostly because it’s still hot in Maryland, and I sweat like a pig on a good day. But, you know. Mariah Carey and I know Starbucks’ hot PSL will always be my baby.


honorable pumpkin mentions


7-Eleven’s pumpkin coffee (with pumpkin creamer)

My mom told me she’d seen pumpkin coffee at her local 7-Eleven one morning last week, so I drove my little self over there at lunchtime to investigate. To my delight, both pumpkin coffee and pumpkin pie spice creamers were available . . . so I loaded up. And overdid it. Three creamers might have been a bit excessive, but whatever — I was really excited.

Though not technically a PSL, 7-Eleven’s brew is delicious — and the creamers add fantastic (and truly pumpkin-y) flavor. Just skip the sugar; you won’t need it. And you’ll be jet-fueled enough to empty your email inbox and your coworker’s before they’re even back from break. 7-Eleven pumpkin coffee will get you a raise, basically. So go you.


Blue Moon’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale

Though not a drinker, I can appreciate an occasional brewskie (case in point: I say “brewskie,” and I have no idea how to even spell that). Blue Moon’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale is quite refreshing, though it lacks the signature pumpkin flavor I’d expect from a drink with the gourd in its name. I can occasionally get a whiff of the nutmeg Blue Moon promises is in the brew, but mostly? It’s just a good beer. Or ale. Or whatever. But I like it.


Do you have a favorite? Are you a PSL fan, or do you run screaming away from my favorite drink? (That’s fine — I mean, we can’t be friends anymore . . . but it’s all right.) Feel free to share your thoughts or personal taste tests below.


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25 thoughts on “Pumpkin spice latte: a taste test

  1. Lattes are so good. I’ll have to try the Starbucks version (hot, too cold for iced) if they sell it here – glad you recommend it the most, for that. Stores selling seasonal drinks is great.

  2. I am a huge PSL fan…but I have to limit my consumption due to budget. Otherwise for the entire fall season I would be in Starbucks every morning. For the days when I need my pumpkin flavor, I go DD for a pumpkin spice coffee, or I pick up the K-cups.
    Thanks for giving your recommendations! 🙂

  3. What a great post! I never even knew that there where this many types of pumpkin spice lattes. My little sister just tried her very first one yesterday:)

  4. I…and one of those strange people that doesn’t like pumpkin flavor very much. I have only liked it once and it wasn’t in a PSL – Tried my husband’s once and not a fan. I guess it just saves me money and leaves more pumpkin for everyone else!

  5. This is an incredible investigation, Meg! Sadly, I can’t have caffeine in this life of mine which makes me feel very left out (but how does the decaf version of flavored coffee work?)

  6. I love this post! I’ve never been huge on pumpkin flavor, but I do like a PSL every now and then because it does taste like fall! I’ll have to try all of these, lol. My husband was drinking the shock top pumpkin beer and he said it just tasted like regular beer too!

  7. Fantastic post. My favorite PSL was from a local coffee shop that has since closed. I can get variations of it from other local shops as they use the same coffee, but my barista knew exactly how I liked my drink and no one has been able to replicate that.

  8. Hmm, don’t think I could come at one of those. My old boss has just moved to Canada (from Australia) and mentioned the pumpkin drinks in an email and I advised her to stay away from them. I prefer pumpkin soup and/or a chai latte.

  9. I love this post Meg! I am a pumpkin-a-holic as well, but am kind of snobby. While you are going shop to shop looking for new drinks, I can’t pull myself away from Starbucks. And I can’t bring myself to try a cold one. Now I do get a little braver when it comes to pumpkin flavored pastries. Mini cupcakes, pumpkin bread, pumpkin roll, pumpkin whoopie pies…. I try to get a new one each week. This year I’ll try to make my own as well. Now what to try? I had pumpkin scones from Kroger a couple of weeks ago and they were to die for. I may have to go back and get round 2 of them.

  10. I enjoyed this so much. Something keeps me away,from cold PSL but I’ve enjoyed Starbucks and DD hot. Such a fun post!!! Oh and bring on the Pumpkin bread, muffins,and cupcakes too.

  11. O.M.G. I love Pumpkin. I love Blue Moon. I had no idea they had combined the two. I’ve died and gone to heaven.

  12. I thought of this post this past weekend. I had an incredible Pumpkin Spice Soy Latte yesterday, but it was at a local Atlanta restaurant. You might need to start a road trip series next year for your PSL adventures 🙂
    PS – I heart pumpkin too and have posted recipes on my blog for veggie chili that calls for canned pumpkin, as well as pumpkin bread.

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