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.

Etsy Find Fridays: Spot of tea for you?

We have a really awesome water cooler at work. Maybe you do, too, which means we both work for stellar employers. Because this baby? The literal water cooler around which we often perch, chatting and quenching our thirst? It has hot water.

This might not seem all that exciting at first. I mean, hot water? We can get hot water from a tap. We can get hot water in the shower. But having hot water right from the water cooler means I can quickly, conveniently make myself a cup of hot tea in the afternoons.

No less than six types of tea bags take up residence in my desk drawer. Choosing which to sample in the afternoon is a special treat, and it’s these little luxuries — simple things — that can spice up a long afternoon. And I’m no tea monogamist. Black tea, green tea, white tea — all are welcome here. (In my mug.)

As such, my interest in tea extends beyond merely drinking the lovely elixir. To avid tea drinkers, tea is a way of life. It’s synonymous with comfort. When someone I know is sick, that’s the first thing flying out of my mouth: “Want me to make you some tea?” And when I myself am ill, that’s what I would like to be offered: “Meg, shall I make you a spot of tea?” (In this scenario, you are British. I like that about you.)

In a favorite song by The Script, the chaps sing, “They’ll be a smile on my face and the kettle on, and it’ll be just like you were never gone — if you ever come back, if you ever come back . . .” The lovely image of a handsome guy sitting there with a cup of tea desperately hoping to see my face again? Ready to pass me a mug of tea and listen to my stories, all while apologizing profusely for his wrongdoing? Yes, please. With sugar.

If you’re a tea-swilling crazywoman like me — or just need some holiday gift ideas for someone who is — I invite you to peruse my favorite beverage-related items from Etsy this week. Click on each image to be taken to the item’s listing.

Are you a tea drinker?
What’s your favorite kind?

A little something sweet

When I think of summer, it’s the sweet tang of a Slurpee on my tongue that hits me first.

Near my grandparents’ home was a 7-Eleven — a convenience store just far enough away to constitute a “walk,” but not nearly far enough that we couldn’t make it over there. My sister and I were fortunate to spend summers with my grandparents growing up, and Grandma tried to get Kate and me out for fresh air. When the Maryland humidity didn’t threaten to knock us out, we’d prance around the neighborhood and wind up at the store for a treat.

I remember my sister in the stroller and my hand in Grandma’s. I remember the shells adorning a neighbor’s driveway — as fine and delicate as bone. And I remember, too, the way the cool air and neon lights would strike us as we made it to 7-Eleven — and I headed straight for the Slurpee machine. I couldn’t always reach it.

My dad kept up the ritual, too, and trips for Slurpees were an after-school routine. When Dad would collect us for home, we’d pop into the store for chips and a drink. Coke Slurpees have always been my favorite, and still are; a throwback to the sweetness of growing up.

When I’m having a rough day, 7-Eleven’s siren song is more powerful than anything Starbucks could ever offer. I often stop for lunch near a gas station that carries this nectar of the gods and can’t help but get a large beverage for the road. In the decades since those lazy days at Grandma’s, I’ve traded my sneakers and corduroys for heels and trousers — but my childish taste buds? Totally intact.

Katie and I made a special trip for a free “birthday” Slurpee on 7/11. They were out of Coke, of course, considering it’s the most awesome of all awesome Slurpee flavors. But I got a cherry — a decent substitute. And it’s definitely not unusual to find my sister and I making special trips to drinks to this day.

July is rapidly winding to a close. Our birthdays have now passed — an annual celebration of Dad, my sister and me. August is waving and friendly, but still threatening to disappear as fast as the previous months. We anticipate summer for so long — the vacations and tanning and fireworks — but once it’s here, we’re helpless to slow it all down. As I type, the leaves on trees lining my office’s street are yellowing and preparing to drop. It won’t be long before our 100-degree heat yields to cold, damp 60-degree days.

And don’t get me wrong — I still get Slurpees on 60-degree days. But there’s something about the rapidly-melting, hot-and-steamy July afternoons that make your drink all the sweeter.

And who couldn’t use a little sweet?

So I sort of have this milkshake thing.

Like all my food and drink obsessions, I’m never quite sure where they begin. I try something, perhaps for the first time — a Peep; a pumpkin spice latte. These magic concoctions work their way into my diet. I take a sip, a bite or a nibble and, you know, fall desperately in love.

And then? Then it’s game on.

I don’t do things halfway. And right now, I’m all about the creamy concoctions sold in diners, ice cream parlors and Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide: milkshakes.

Strawberry. Chocolate. Cookies and cream. Peanut butter. Whatever, wherever — if it’s a milkshake topped with whipped cream, I’m there. And, if you’re at the Nautilus Diner in Crofton, Md.? Well, they put sprinkles on theirs.

Jealous, right?

I know that, as far as drink obsessions go, this isn’t exactly a healthy one. I’m still trying to get to the gym on an, um, semi-regular basis. But there’s something about the allure of an ice-cold milkshake that keeps drawing me in, and I’m powerless to stop it.

Spencer and I were at a Hamboree near Baltimore over the weekend — “ham” as in ham radios, which basically translated to me walking around the Maryland State Fairgrounds with absolutely no idea what I was seeing. Vendors offered dismantled computers, radio parts and old tubes, lined up on the endless tables. Spencer was in his element . . . building, thinking, scheming.

He’s a physicist. And I’m a book nerd. I can barely pronounce “physicist.” (You know — opposites attract.)

So the Hamboree is in full swing and we’re talking around for hours in the chilly Cow Palace (just . . . yep), and I’m easily the youngest woman there. In fact, let’s be frank: I’m one of only a few women in the entire building. Never in my life have I been somewhere and seen a line for the men’s room and not the ladies’. (Finally — vengeance!)

It was fun, but you know what really kept me walking and spurred me on? The promise of a milkshake at Nautlius. I swear that when our server set it down on the table, I felt like shouting and rubbing my hands together like a maniac.

Instead, I managed to snap that photo before totally losing my mind.

That was gone in about .2378 seconds. I think I produced a hurricane-force wind with my spoon shoveling.

Sharing the vanilla chai love

The first time I ever took a sip of chai tea, my sister and I exchanged puzzled looks.

“It tastes . . . rancid,” I decided, wrinkling my nose. I took another sip to be sure of my findings, of course; yep, still weird. Unusual. Spicy.

“It doesn’t taste like tea,” Katie agreed.

I’ve come a long way from the skeptical, just-straight-coffee-and-cream-thanks girl I once was. Furthermore, I’m no longer the Red-Rose-black-tea-until-I-die lady I was in my early twenties. (Sidenote: I can now say “early twenties” because I’m in my mid-twenties. Lord.)

When I worked at Borders and the newspaper, juicing up on some sort of caffeine was a nightly requirement. No one can work 14 hours a day without some sort of jolt. A friend reintroduced me to chai tea when I was a wee little bookseller — and then, to my great astonishment, suggested adding vanilla syrup to it. Delicious.

I was at Dunkin’ Donuts yesterday getting gas and trying to break a $20 bill before going to the gym, where I needed $5 cash to get past the fitness center guard who seems skeptical that I would want to pay as I go — once or twice a week — rather than invest in a monthly payment plan and itmakesmereallymad because IjustwanttodowhatIwanttodo without being questioned. Every single time.


So I went into my local DD and perused their beverage board. I’m used to ordering my gingerbread latte or, when I’m feeling randy, a peppermint mocha, but neither option is available now.

But then I saw something better.

A vanilla chai latte.

I’ve never seen a vanilla chai latte pre-made, friends! I thought it was . . . well, that it was something special my old Borders buddy had made up. I have vanilla chai tea bags in my desk, true, and they’re awesome, but they don’t compare to the creamy, milk goodness that is a chai tea latte. With vanilla.

So I ordered it and it was fantastic — seriously, so good — but I burned my tongue until eternity on the scalding hot milk. When will I learn to give hot beverages the prerequisite 20-30 minute waiting time before sipping them? Seriously. You’d think I just got here.

But I didn’t. Hot tea has been a staple in my life forever.

Growing up, my mom was a huge tea drinker — and Red Rose was her variety of choice. My favorite part of any tea-making habit was peeking in the Red Rose box to see which of the Wade Whimsies was buried inside with the teabags. The tiny animal figurines were favorite trinkets of my sister’s and mine, and Mom would help us place them all in a little cabinet. I used to cup them in my hands and admire the smooth feel of the porcelain. We still have most of them.

January is National Tea Month, y’all. Americans drink more than 50 billion cups of tea each year, one website claims, and I have a feeling that number is far higher in places where teatime is actually a ritual. Like England. Where I’m going in April. (More to come on that soon!)

If you’ve never tried chai tea (or a chai tea latte), make that your first order of business. It’s a taste of warmth and comfort in a cup. In fact . . . well, I need to brew some now.

And how do you take your tea? Or do you hate tea? One commenter will get a note from me (oh, the joy!) and some of my favorite teabags. Just make sure I have your email! Random winner will be selected on Saturday, Jan. 29 and emailed by yours truly.

Updated Jan. 30: Congratulations to Patty, my randomly-selected tea winner! I’ve sent you an email.

Oh, how the latte has fallen from grace

You guys aren’t going to believe me, but I’m going to tell you a sad truth.

In the past month, I’ve had four — four — pumpkin spice lattes since my most favorite of all drinks was re-introduced at Starbucks, Panera, Borders and Dunkin’ Donuts.


Four drinks. Total.

I used to go through two or three drinks in a week, easy peasy. Lots of caffeine and syrup happening over here. When my coworkers would head over on the morning Dunkin’ run, I’d throw in a few bucks or be generously treated by my friend Kelly, a total latte enabler, and find a delicious steaming beverage waiting for me in no time. Not every day; I mean, I’m not an addict or anything. Heh. Um. But, you know, at least two times a week. Three, max.

But this year? This year I got one on Aug. 30 with Spencer at Starbucks, then put up a tweet about it. Considering it was still 90 degrees out, we’ll let that be an indication of my dedication to this drink.

And, you know? It was good. I liked it. As good as I remembered, sure, and I sipped it while watching Spencer’s face as he tried his. Considering he’s not much of a latte/macchiato/espresso drinker, he was brave to give it a try. And was lukewarm on the experience.

For me, pumpkin lattes are all about the thrill of tradition. It’s so exciting to realize that yes, autumn is here again! And all of those exciting, fall things are available! Like choosing pumpkins at our neighborhood patch or seeing Halloween-shaped Peeps, it’s a harbinger of the holiday season to come. The pumpkin spice latte is, basically, how I mark the passing of time.

Last year I called myself a modern latte Goldilocks, flitting through the countryside and trying every restaurant’s offering. This year I even added Borders to my sampling plate, so to speak, and  enjoyed the pumpkin creme latte available at their Seattle’s Best Coffee cafes.

But this year? I couldn’t tell you which one I liked best. Because I’ve had exactly one from each location, drinking them passively as my mind was on other things.

What’s happened to me? How has my enthusiasm for something I once loved with all my heart waned so greatly? Did I just officially burn myself out on the pumpkin spice? The last time I dashed into a Starbucks on my way back to the office, I ordered tea. A chai tea latte.

I love tea, but am I seriously cheating on my pumpkin latte with chai? Something I can get all year long, no complications? No anticipation?

I don’t know what to tell you, friends. I’m pretty upset about this.

And I think I’ll go drown my sorrows in another chai to take my mind off it.