Starbucks' pumpkin latte signals the season

The decade-old fall drink is popular enough to offend vegan followers of the typically lactose-laden beverage.

By Jason Notte Sep 17, 2013 7:08AM
Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte (© Starbucks)NASA asserts that fall begins on Sept. 22 at 4:44 p.m. ET, but for U.S. consumers there are far better ways to indicate that the season is upon us.

Maybe the pumpkin beer that's been in coolers since July? Nope, too soon. What about the candy corn and other Halloween treats that have been in seasonal aisles since discount stores and grocers cleared out the back-to-school items in August? Nope, still doesn't feel quite right.

The true commercial harbinger of autumn -- the one that signals it just as surely as the Macy's (M) Thanksgiving Day Parade kicks off the holiday shopping season or McDonald's (MCD) Shamrock Shake ushers in St. Patrick's Day -- is the Starbucks (SBUX) Pumpkin Spice Latte. Trivial and blithe as its mix of flavored powder seems, the concoction that hit stores on Sept. 3 is popular enough to elicit outrage from its vegan and lactose-intolerant adherents once they discover that there's no way to separate condensed milk from the pre-fab formula.

Granted, vegans might have an easier go of it if they, you know, avoided drinks commonly associated with dairy milk products -- the name latte itself comes from the Italian caffe latte, which basically translates to "milk coffee." But such is the Pumpkin Spice Latte's hold on the American coffee-consuming public that even folks who dedicate their lives to avoiding animal products will clamor for a almond or soy version of the beverage that has the Italian word for milk in its moniker.

The Wall Street Journal has delved deep into Pumpkin Spice Latte culture, devoting wholesale space to it last year when the flavor was in short supply and returning to the topic this year while telling the drink's origin story. A decade ago, the flavor was almost relegated to the Starbucks research and development team's slop sink of misfit flavors.

With a little coaxing from the development team and a testing process that included downing a mix of pumpkin pie filling and espresso, the Pumpkin Spice Latte made the cut. The drink now warrants its own #PSL hashtag on Twitter and has spawned similarly spiced clones from Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN), Peet's (PEET) and other rivals.

While it's basically just a seasonal item that, much like the McRib sandwich, gooses sales during a annual lull, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is just one of the additions that has helped Starbucks boost its presence from 7,225 stores a decade ago to nearly 19,000 today.

Even with condensed milk in the formula -- and no actual pumpkin whatsoever -- Starbucks has created a latte that inspires loyalty among even those who usually reject lattes both ethically and physically.

More on moneyNOW

Sep 17, 2013 11:26AM
Starbucks pumpkin is great.  However, found a local creamery right down the road that's bigger, better, and a touch cheaper.  And the money stays home on the farm.  They make the same stuff, only with their own ingredients and it's still a bit less money.

My wife LOVES that stuff. Me - I'm more of a Peppermint Mocha man.


They're one (two?) of our holiday traditions.

Sep 17, 2013 12:24PM
Personally, I am waiting for the Pumpkin Pie Blizzard at DQ. Yummm.
Sep 20, 2013 12:10PM
It would be just like if I told a grocery store not to sell cigarettes just because I don't smoke.
Sep 17, 2013 10:30PM
I had no idea Starbucks was Lacoste intolerant !
Sep 17, 2013 9:52AM
You would think veganism qualifies under the ADA.
Sep 17, 2013 10:07AM

I will NEVER buy at Starbucks again......


I ordered a toffee nut latte, and they charged me for the toffee nut!!!


I said, miss, I didn't order a latte with toffee nut, I ordered a toffee nut latte. So why did you charge me separate for the toffee nut?


She replied, in the most  professional way.......


That's just how it is....


Hmmm, ok.....See ya Starbucks!



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