It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The air is crisp, the leaves are transforming from their summer greens to their autumnal shades, and your local coffee shops are brewing their most popular flavour of seasonal java. Whether you love it or love to hate it, there’s no denying that pumpkin spice lattes have become a pop culture phenomenon since their debut. Their yearly reappearance signifies the end of summer and the beginning of the festive fall season. Throughout their height of popularity they’ve been loved and hated, duplicated, reinvented, and inspired a plethora of pumpkin spice-themed items. The pumpkin spice latte is surprisingly polarizing, and in recent years, admitting to enjoying sipping on one of them made you “basic”. Like it or not, these silly little drinks have helped make the autumn aesthetic its own beast that even rivals the Christmas fanfare, and each year the hunger for pumpkin spice goodies only increases.
A Pumpkin Spice Latte, or a PSL as they’re currently known as, is a mix of espresso, steamed milk, and a combination of spices like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg (AKA, pumpkin pie spices). Starbucks started developing the PSL in 2003 after their holiday drinks did so well during the previous holiday season. A National Post article credits Peter Duke as one of the drink’s founders. Ever since the warm and festive drink hit coffee shops, it’s kind of become a cultural marker for the official end of summer and beginning of fall. It’s not just contained to coffee shops either. You can find pumpkin spice goodies in the form of things like soaps, candles, and air fresheners. The now-iconic scent/flavour has even found its way into less traditional items like scented garbage bags, wet wipes, and even engagement rings according to thetakeout.com. The PSL has remained popular since its debut 20 years ago, thanks in part to the short window of time that they’re available to purchase and sip on. The exclusivity means people will need to feed their cravings while they can, since they won’t be around for long.
With the expansion into a wider variety of items it’s quite literally possible to pumpkin spice up your whole life in 2023, but once pumpkin spice started blowing up on popular social media sites like Instagram in the early 2010s, the drink was suddenly deemed uncool. In other words, there was no way you could be taken as a serious coffee drinker if you had a hot PSL in your hand. In 2015 an episode of Scream Queens even pokes fun at the pumpkin spice trend by having its main antagonist, sorority president Chanel order one (half-caf,with no foam, at 210 degrees), while her main rival orders just a regular coffee because “those white girl pumpkin spice lattes annoy her”. Simply enjoying the seasonal treat became a symbol that meant you were high-maintenance or worse, basic.
The meme-ification of pumpkin spice season eventually snowballed into the entire internet making fun of women for enjoying the wonders of autumn in general (as the internet tends to do to anyone who enjoys something a little too much). After photos of her in Vermont went viral, influencer Caitlin Covington found herself as the face of the “Christian Girl Autumn” meme. The term “Christian Girl Autumn” was coined by Isabella Markel on Twitter back in 2019 as a way to describe the specific aesthetic that becomes popular in fall weather ie. skinny jeans, boots, big purses and oversized blanket scarves. The tweet launched Covington into becoming a meme legend, and now she has a devoted group of followers that wait for her annual fall photo dumps. Covington took the meme in stride and she still takes her annual fall photos pretty seriously, too. In a Tiktok video she revealed she uses a “fall foliage forecast” to plan her content trips to Vermont when the colours of the leaves are just right.
Even though enjoying a festive fall beverage was considered cringey, the drink still had its loyal fans. In 2019 CNBC.com stated that the PSL was Starbucks’s most popular seasonal drink with a whopping 424 million sales worldwide. Even with its limited release, people still flock to their local coffee shops to grab a drink to sip on while they can. And it turns out that a true PSL fan doesn’t care about being made fun of for their love of the drink. The movement of liking things without fear of being judged has been on the rise with a noticeable shift in 2020 on social media. We saw it with trends like kid-core fashion and maximalism to name a few. When autumn rolled around mid-pandemic people were taking comfort in all of the things they loved, because it kind of felt like that was all we had. People were dressing their pets as ghosts and taking photos of them for TikTok trends, putting pumpkins on their heads to wander around through the forest for fall photo-ops, and once again reaching for their favourite pumpkin spiced treat. Now PSL release day feels like a time-honoured tradition because for many the return of the drink also brings a feeling of comfort and nostalgia.
The PSL has been around for two decades and its popularity has continued to endure (even when it was most popular to dislike it), making it a top selling drink through its entire life. It’s so much more than a drink though. It’s become a cultural phenomenon and its reappearance brings the promissory that fall is on its way. But even more than being the unofficial marker of autumn, it gives us a chance to feel like we’re part of something bigger. A sense of community, even if it’s for something as trivial as a seasonal beverage. There is a certain delight in embracing pumpkin spice season. It allows us to get jazzed about the little things in life when we’re used to being bummed out by the state of the world on a constant basis. It also extends the vibe of the holiday season for anyone who just can’t get enough of it. Maybe the best part of it is the joy in looking forward to enjoying something at the same time every year. Whatever it may be for you, I’ll be sipping on my PSL at the pumpkin patch until the snow starts to fall.