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A Pumpkin Spice too Far

I spent most of October and November in the United States and Canada, coinciding with Canadian Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, and, probably most importantly, pumpkin spice season. This blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—the flavourings associated with pumpkin pie—has become comically ubiquitous in the US. Alongside pumpkin spice muffins, macaroons, and cupcakes, I saw pumpkin spice air freshener, rooibos tea, and beer. I tried pumpkin spice chips (inadvisable) and Icelandic yogurt (odd).

Too far, I think.

Too far, I think.

The pumpkin spice phenomenon originated in 2003, when Starbucks—then on the cusp of almost-global domination—debuted a new flavour for autumn. As reported last year to mark the drink’s ten-year anniversary, the company was hesitant to introduce the pumpkin spice latte. It already sold several flavoured coffees, but was not entirely sure that another seasonal drink would take off. They needn’t have worried. Forbes reports that in 2013 Starbucks had sold more than 200 million pumpkin spice lattes:

If you just do the math, that means Starbucks has sold an average 20 million beverages a year whose flavoring once belonged primarily in a seasonal pie…

At the basic price of about $4 for a 12-ounce tall size, PSL means at least $80 million in revenue … for Starbucks, which serves it beginning in September. … The company says the PSL is by far the most popular seasonal beverage in its lineup.

In fact, the pumpkin spice latte was held responsible for a bounce in the chain’s revenues this year. Outrages and fears over pumpkin spice shortages, and the annual dash for the first pumpkin spice latte of the season, are canny marketing strategies which have helped to position the drink—the #PSL on Twitter—alongside Starbucks’s red cups as a marker of the beginning of autumn and the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, other chains and supermarkets have begun to produce their own versions of the PSL.

Small, independent coffee shops—the alternatives to corporate caffeine—have also developed ways of cashing in on the pumpkin spice craze. I had a pumpkin pie flavoured latte at New Moon—an excellent café in Burlington, Vermont—and a lumberjack latte at Babo in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were sweet and spicy: less coffee than coffee flavoured drinks.

I don’t think that the wild enthusiasm for pumpkin spice—as a flavouring—is particularly surprising. After all, in the US, Europe, and some other parts of the world, this combination of spices has long been a feature of winter or festive cooking and baking. A more interesting question is why Americans drink so much flavoured coffee. In the interests of research, I also tried vanilla, and brown sugar and sea salt flavoured coffees, and resolved never to waver from the true path of Americanos, flat whites, and the odd cappuccino. For all the fact that new technologies and techniques—drip, siphon, cold brew—have gained wild popularity for making coffee which tastes, apparently, more acutely and complicatedly of coffee, the popularity of flavoured coffees continues unabated.

It's decorative gourd season at the Ann Arbor farmers' market.

It’s decorative gourd season at the Ann Arbor farmers’ market.

America remains the largest coffee market in the world, with a third of consumers drinking ‘gourmet’ (or specially prepared) brews every day. To some extent, the ubiquity of coffee today is linked to a major fall in the price of the commodity twenty years ago. In 1962, John F. Kennedy shepherded the International Coffee Agreement into existence. Including mainly Latin American countries—the producers of superior Arabica coffee beans—the ICA controlled the price of coffee globally and was also intended to stabilise these countries’ economies, immunising them against potential Soviet influence. The ICA favoured the US and Brazil, giving both countries veto rights on policy decisions.

The collapse of the ICA, along with the Berlin Wall, in 1989 was produced both by shifting Cold War politics as well as by the emergence of new coffee producing countries—like Vietnam—which were not signatories to the Agreement. The fall in the price of coffee meant a coffee boom, particularly in the US where enthusiasm for Arabica had grown steadily over the course of the 1980s. It is no coincidence that you may have tried your first cappuccino—in the US and elsewhere—in the early 1990s. The growth of Starbucks—founded as a small independent in Seattle in 1981—traced the demise of the ICA and the fall in the international coffee price.

It is now easier than ever to buy extraordinarily good coffee for relatively little money. I wonder if this could account for the amazing variety of coffee based drinks available in the US. As a cheap beverage—as an affordable luxury, as Sidney Mintz describes the consumption of sugar in the nineteenth century—has coffee become unmoored from its position as a bitter drink to be had in small quantities at defined moments in the day, to a sweet, comforting snack to be consumed at any time?

Further Reading

Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Stefano Ponte, ‘Behind the Coffee Crisis,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47 (Nov. 24-30, 2001), pp. 4410-4417.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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