Taste test: We're falling for pumpkin spice lattes
It might not be everyone's cup of coffee, but a pumpkin spice latte or PSL has become a fall staple, from the fast food giants to truck stops to neighborhood coffee houses. Here is an informal taste-test.
Beans & Brews, $3.61 (16 ounces)
The Coffee • They call it a "pumpkin spice fritalia," which, as best I can tell, is a made-up word. Fear not, it is a pumpkin spice latte.
After a worthy first third, the seasonal flavors took a backseat to the coffee and milk, and didn't return in full until the bottom third with a sweeter combination of coffee, cream, whip, spices and gourd. This might be a little disappointing for those used to the top-to-bottom experience of a Starbucks PSL. But a dynamic drink keeps the accents new and surprising, allowing the last third to stand out. And it's a unique one at a cheaper rate than some coffee houses.
Location • There are three Beans & Brews in Salt Lake, depending on the mood: 268 S. State, for bustling downtown; 906 S. 500 East, the leisurely park spot; and 1953 W. California Ave. I have only been to the first two, and their respective foot traffic aside, both were decorated with the calm, dark and earthy tones I appreciate from a coffee shop.
Starbucks, $4.04 (12 ounces)
The Coffee • I'm pretty sure Starbucks did not invent the pumpkin spice latte, but in the 10 years since the green siren started selling it, the company's version has become a cultural norm by which other PSLs are judged and for good reason.
The first thing that strikes you is the artistry, if you bother to take the lid off. The swirled starburst of whip cream, sprinkled with fall spices, looks the way Starbucks wants you to feel walking around with a cup of their product: stylish and confident. And side-stepping hollow pretension, an easy trap, it backs that style up with substance.
The pumpkin syrup is the star and it shoves everyone out of the way to get front and center in the mix. The Starbucks PSL trades balance for emphasis, and why not? You did order a pumpkin spice latte.
Starbucks PSL has a top-to-bottom consistency in its flavor, which is true if you go without whip, which I tend to do to mind my health. But if teeth and calorie count be darned, the whip is quite rewarding. Not only does the PSL get sweeter as you go along, but as the sugary iceberg melts, the extra spices that had been clinging to it lose their footing and slip into the latte. The steady infusion makes the drink dynamic, introducing subtle new tastes until, by the end, the bold pumpkin is the loudest member of a full fall orchestra. Unlike the dynamic quality of the Beans & Brews, the crescendo only builds as you dive deeper into Starbucks' cup.
And with each cup, you'll dive deeper into poverty.
There are more expensive PSLs, but they do not share Starbucks' ubiquitous availability. When the autumn craving hits, chances are Starbucks is your nearest proper coffee house.
Location • It's Starbucks, you know what's up. But at the risk of spoiling a favored sanctuary, let me clue you in on something you may not know if you did not attend the University of Utah or spend long nights in its hospital: The Starbucks in its lobby is open 24 hours a day. Despite its singular hours, it's only been sparsely to moderately filled with people the many times I've been there, which has often been around or after midnight.
McDonald's, $2.98 (12 ounces)
The Coffee • McDonald's might seem the most ordinary and uninteresting place imaginable to try a pumpkin spice latte. You would be right, except it's a newish seasonal offering for the fast-food behemoth.
Unfortunately, the McDonald's PSL, like the rest of its food, is as ordinary and uninteresting as you might imagine.But if you're traveling this fall, the golden arches could prove the only fast-food option at a given rest stop. An acceptable (if boring) PSL within reach is better than none.
Location • It's Mickey-D's. You don't need me to explain Mickey-D's to you. But not every location has the latte, if you want to try it. The McDonald's at The Gateway food court in Salt Lake City did not have the new offering, but the McD at 210 W. 500 South did.
Maverik, $1.38 (16 ounces)
The Coffee • "Adventure's first stop" is not yours for a pumpkin spice latte or in this case, a pumpkin spice cappuccino (PSC) if you don't have an adventure-sized sweet tooth.
The Maverik PSC was surprisingly sweet and creamy, reminding me more of a melted caramel drink that leans much more heavily on pumpkin than it does on spice. The flavor is so prominent, it nearly drowns out whatever coffee is mixed in, and becomes a beverage akin to a frothy candy bar.
Which isn't a bad thing. But I could only get through about half of the smallest size (16 ounces) before wishing I had sampled someone else's first. I still finished the cup for the sake of a review, and concluded that if you got that Halloween hankering for the sugary stuff young and it never let you go, then the Maverik PSC is a great deal.
Location • Maverik is prevalent across the western U.S.
Coffee Noir, $3.22 (12 ounces)
The Coffee • Coffee Noir's pumpkin spice latte fits this quiet neighborhood coffee house with its mild-mannered approach. The fall flavors are faint behind the light coffee and airy milk, announcing themselves in whispers amid the brew and only gaining the confidence to step forward in some of the later sips. Even the unassuming cup it's served in fits its personality.
At $3, the PSL is timid in its asking price (relatively speaking) for what's ultimately a mild cup of coffee with a blush of style.
Location • Coffee Noir is the kind of corner coffee shop that's marked by warm colors, a warm bakery and still warmer atmosphere; the kind of place where at least one man walked in with his own mug as he would his own kitchen. You can take a seat inside or out (with ample patio seating) on a quiet street amid old trees and homes. At 200 S. 1040 East, Coffee Noir is just far enough from the 900 East divide between city and neighborhood that you could easily forget the urban bustle is only a couple blocks away.
Coffee Garden, $4.97 (12 ounces)
The Coffee • I learned of this pumpkin coffee from a friend, who described how she wanted to curl up inside it until springtime. She's right.
The antithesis of Coffee Noir's light and breezy pumpkin spice latte, Coffee Garden's pumpkin mocha breve is a warm, rich offering that invites you in, wraps you up and asks you to stay a while, there's a fresh pot of coffee on the stove and a pumpkin pie in the oven.
The breve offers a dark chocolate treat with a tall glass of warm milk before it brings out the pumpkin pie and a hot mug of dark coffee. The chocolate, which takes a step back for the main course in the breve's midsection, returns like a dessert for a rich encore at the end and leaves you with a delicious aftertaste long after the cup is dry. The thickness and richness of the whole brew slows you down to enjoy its layers as they unfold.
Besides, at almost $5 for 12 ounces, you might as well savor it and get your money's worth.
Location • You can find Coffee Garden as an extension of Eborn Books at 254 S. Main St., but it closes by 6 p.m. The other location, a standalone and oft-packed cafe at 9th and 9th, is open much later.
7-Eleven, $1.07 (12 ounces)
The Coffee • The same friend who pointed me to the pumpkin mocha breve at Coffee Garden pointed me to this one. Frankly, you are hard pressed to find a better PSL .
This comes from a dispenser, so there is no nuance and layers but the one note it hits is light and upbeat. The PSL is sweet and strong on the pumpkin, but holds back enough so you never feel overwhelmed. If the 7-Eleven PSL is a celebration of the autumn, it is a party that knows how to keep the music at just the right level so the neighbors won't complain. Even better, a small coffee is only $1 (plus seven cents tax) all month. This is the best PSL in its league at the best price in the city, as far as I'm aware. "Oh thank Heaven" is right.
Location • There are more than 18 locations in Salt Lake City. Trust me, you can find one.
Cafe on 1st, $4.05 (16 ounces)
The Coffee • Order your pumpkin spice latte to stay, and not because Cafe on 1st is an inviting place. The baristas made one pretty latte, the kind layered with a frothy painting of a leaf that inspires a photo and discourages a drink. Don't worry, drink up you paid enough. Like a real leaf, the pattern rested gently and undisturbed on the warm depths no matter how low they dropped.
The beverage beneath does not quite match up to the artistry above, though that's a high bar to meet. The pumpkin is not bold enough and the brew not dense enough to wrap you up and capture your attention, but they meld together well to form a quiet companion to something else a newspaper or a good view of changing leaves.
Location •Cafe on 1st gives you half the direction; follow 1st Avenue until you reach I Street, where it's on the southwest corner. Seating is available inside and out, with chairs, couches and ample copies of The Daily Utah Chronicle beyond the door.
If you still haven't gotten your pumpkin spice latte fix, read even more reviews on Michael McFall's tumblr page by clicking here.
Get even more of a fix
Read reviews of four more places that serve up pumpkin spice lattes on Michael McFall's tumblr page by clicking here.