This weekend, as temperatures in the Bay Area reach 80 degrees, Brinton Parker Botkin will decorate her apartment with Halloween decorations. The 26-year-old plans to pick up a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks as soon as the drink hits stores on Aug. 27. Come Sept. 1, Parker Botkin commences an annual tradition: “two months of [watching] daily horror movies.”
Parker Botkin, a former coworker of mine, does not hide her self-described “autumnal obsession.” “Life is too short not to enjoy the stuff you love when you want to,” she explained. “Especially when San Francisco gets weirdly hot in October and ruins the Halloween vibe during the actual season.”
This week, on Aug. 21—exactly 71 days before Halloween—Dunkin’ Donuts dropped three gourd-themed delights. Available now, hot or iced for your drinking pleasure, are the Pumpkin Signature Latte, Pumpkin Flavored Coffee, and the brand-new Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Signature Latte.
These beverages are, of course, Dunkin’s take on Starbucks’ much-ballyhooed (and parodied) Pumpkin Spice Latte, which has heralded fall’s arrival for the last 16 years.
Next week, the Starbucks PSL will make its grand return—one day earlier than last year’s comeback. It cannot arrive soon enough for the squash-obsessed, some of whom share their pumpkin spiced finds in private Facebook groups like the Leaf Rakers Society (a creation of Starbucks).
Rule number one of the Leaf Rakers Society? “No hatin’ on Fall.” (Another commandment: “Be like Fall: Be cool. This isn’t a place for religious or political debate.”) Over 30,000 members have opted in, posting classifieds calling for a “Fall Best Friend” who will accompany them apple picking, or sharing photos of their Bath & Body Works scented candle haul.
Around 28,000 Facebook users have joined Fall Blessed and Halloween Obsessed, where users show off cooking demos and decorations. One mother in the group has taken to moving a “creepy Annabel doll” her children think is haunted around the house, like a demonic Elf on the Shelf. “For an extra festive touch, I put the doll right in bed with one of the kids,” the mother wrote.
Another woman shared that her boyfriend surprised her with her desired gift of Kroger Pumpkin Spice Coffee Creamer, which she said had been sold out for weeks.
Fast coffee isn’t the only summer-phobic industry exploiting visions of sugarplums dancing in anyone’s head. Department stores have long-established seasons when it comes to fashion, which means that after July 4 you'll be hard-pressed to find a mannequin in a bikini. They have already traded it in for a Canada Goose jacket.
“You typically see fall or winter merchandise coming into stores in the summertime, and it will increase as it gets closer to fall,” said Elizabeth Shobert, vice president of marketing and digital strategy for the retail analytics company StyleSage.
“For retailers, the longer the window, the better the chance they have of selling more merchandise,” Charcy Evers, a fashion trend analyst, said. “You may not necessarily think someone is buying a winter coat in July, but if a customer is in the store shopping, the coat might pique their interest and FOMO over it selling out may sink in.”
Evers told me that her neighbors have also put up their Halloween decorations this week.
As New York’s oppressively humid temperatures grazed 90 degrees on Wednesday, I went in search of the liquid pumpkin patch. A full six days ahead of the PSL’s homecoming, no Starbucks barista would make the drink for me.
But one very friendly worker (he must be filled with the season’s joy) confirmed that Starbucks staff do have PSL ingredients behind the counter. He has already made one for himself this year.
“I do enjoy a PSL on a moderated basis,” said Hannah Liebermann, an actor and student, though on Wednesday she drank an iced green tea while sitting at Starbucks. “It’s such a divisive question. I don’t want to be cynical about a PSL; I’m not one of those people. I have partaken in a pumpkin spice chai, and I’m not mad about that.”
But she would “100 percent not” drink a steaming hot, spicy espresso in the August heat. “When I want to feel like fall is coming, even if it isn’t because of global warming, I’ll buy into the whole watching a movie with a glass of a warm thing and light a pumpkin spice candle,” Liebermann, 21, added.
Nearby, one New Yorker named Larry Wissing waited for a business meeting. “It’s too early for pumpkin spice lattes, but not too early for pumpkin spice beer,” Wissing offered, adding that he does not indulge himself.
“It’s a fall thing. I associate it with fall,” Nada Abdelhakim, 26, and a PSL fan, said. “I would say it’s too early, but now that we’re talking about them, I might go get one.”
A 2016 story by Today show digital writer A. Pawlowski explored the biology behind why PSLs are so crave-worthy. Despite containing 420 calories and “your whole recommended added sugar intake for a whole day,” there is a reason it's hard to quit the drink.
Since the drink contains both fat and sugar, Pawlowski wrote, both sensations “interact on our taste buds to boost the flavors and make them pop more than either one alone.” Along with that, notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves remind fans of the comfort of fall. It does not hurt that the drink is rife with caffeine, a stimulant that can be addicting.
Inside the spartan East Village café Coffee Project New York, where exposed brick abound and locals sip on $7 “deconstructed” lattes, a barista nixed the idea of deigning to serve a PSL. They suggested anyone with a sweet-tooth order a mocha instead.
In the same neighborhood, The Bean, a local chain, has Pumpkin Spice syrup in their arsenal—though a worker said they had not been asked to make one all summer.
If you need a pumpkin-flavored latte now, and cannot wait for Starbucks' PSL next week, Dunkin’ Donuts can service you.
Around lunchtime, my editor Tim Teeman and I walked to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Chelsea, near The Daily Beast's office. We ordered a hot Pumpkin Latte and Pumpkin Coffee, plus two Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Lattes, one hot and one cold. A worker at the franchise smiled broadly as he told us people were already happily buying the concoctions, regardless of the August heat.
One customer from New York named Gonzalo wanted to wait a little longer. “I love it because it's a traditional beverage, but right now it's too hot outside. It's better to have it in winter-time,” he said. “I'll have my first one this year when it's a little cooler. I love the cinnamon taste. It's something we use in cooking at home, it reminds you of the ambience of home.”
Nearby, another New Yorker named Carly sat at a table with her toddler daughter. “I love Halloween, October, and fall,” Carly said. “I don't care if it's too early to see [pumpkin] on the menu. I like it. I was excited to see it. It makes me happy that they have it. It makes me feel more festive. It tastes like fall, and reminds me of being a little kid.”
But, Carly added, “I wouldn't want it on the menu all year round. I think there are summer flavors, like lemonade, fall flavors, and winter flavors. And right now I'm over this heat, and ready for fall flavors.”
Tim and I proceeded to torch our tastebuds, and after trying all four drinks, we will probably go home and deep clean our apartment and the homes of our neighbors, too.
We found the very aromatic Pumpkin Latte to have some sort of autumnal note, but we couldn’t nail down the exact spice. It’s best as hot as you can stand to swallow—the warmer the drink, the more soothing the hit and smell. The latte has a thick and hearty aftertaste that coats your mouth for a while—great to quell a sore throat, less ideal if you want to fully taste your Sad Desk Lunch. Be warned: It is sweet.
I will particularly mess with the less saccharine Pumpkin Coffee, which reminded me of apple orchards and left me pining for a cider donut. If you cannot muster up the chutzpah it takes to order a Pumpkin Latte in public (then I pity you) just order this instead. It will do the trick.
We will probably not reorder the Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Latte, which we were looking forward to most of all. Sadly, it was a drink so bland we assumed the barista forgot to add an ingredient. Despite advertising that promises a decadent, caramel-dripping beverage of bacchanalian proportions, both of our hot and iced test subjects skewed more watered-down than weighty. It was a mild latte, with no autumnal hit, and no naughty, we-really-shouldn't saccharine wallop.
Whatever your level of cynicism or flat-out rejection, there is no escape from the PSL fever. Last year, Starbucks and its demon-genius marketing department dubbed its launch of the drink the “Pumpkinox.”
Away from the sugar hits, the popular women's retailer Aritizia just shared its fall “New Season,” anyone who goes online shopping will be hit with a barrage of heavy denim jumpsuits, fleece jackets, and a gigantic puffer coat. Meanwhile, Gap is pushing turtlenecks and corduroy on its shoppers. On Nordstrom's homepage, a willowy model wears an oversized blazer and thick leather pants that would not pair well with Labor Day heat.
But as Evers, the retail consultant, put it, “As far as marketers are concerned, summer is over.” Now someone just needs to get the memo to the weather.
—Additional reporting by Tim Teeman