The pumpkin spice season is upon us. Beyond lattes, where it all started at Starbucks in 2003, the pumpkin spice craze has extended into donuts and candles and air fresheners and even into less likely things like yogurt pretzels, Cheerios, protein powder, Oreos, Jello, juice, and alcohol.
Just about every coffeeshop in town now offers a pumpkin spice latte at this time of year — it’s a fall menu staple, so ubiquitous that it’s now often referred to as just a PSL. We set out to determine who makes the best in town.
Five of us rounded up eight different pumpkin spice lattes and evaluated them on price, appearance, and taste. Here’s what we found, listed in alphabetical order:
Bread Milk & Honey
At the most expensive of the bunch, this PSL received pretty favourable reviews, with one taster commenting that it was “not too obnoxious.” It wasn’t overpoweringly sweet, but it also lacked the pumpkin spice flavour; the taste was more chocolate and caramel. It was described as a bit weak, very milky, and cozy.
Appearance-wise, the Bread Milk & Honey pumpkin spice latte looked elegant in their clean white cups and simple black logo. The foam was swirled with the rich brown and white. Overall, very appealing.
The Cupper’s PSL wasn’t a favourite. While it did well to stay less sweet than some, it consistently was noted for some odd spice flavours. One taster thought the spice blend would be better suited to a turkey than a latte, another compared it to a pine tree, and a third thought it was reminiscent of pumpkin spice blended with sunscreen.
As for as how it looked, it needs to be clarified that Cupper’s is currently colouring their whipped cream orange for Halloween, so the appearance left something to be desired. It was bright orange and looked a bit greasy with spices floating on the surface.
While Esquires’ PSL was comparatively priced, it was for two ounces less coffee. As expected in a PSL, it was very sweet (very, very sweet). It also had a bit of bitterness to the spice that wasn’t altogether welcome.
It was one of the better-looking coffees, however. Despite being served in a nondescript cup with no branding, the foam was a clean white and brown swirl, making it stand out as a good-looking latte.
On the fast food end of the spectrum, McDonald’s has been working hard to rebrand their coffee offerings as McCafé. But this PSL was a long way from a coffeeshop latte. The sweetness level of this one was absurd. It had no coffee or pumpkin spice, just simulated flavour that tasted a bit like fluoride. It was described as nutmeg water and “incredibly middle of the road,” which was probably a little generous.
It didn’t look terrible, but more like hot chocolate than a latte with the thin layer of foam all a uniform light brown colour, a lot like the flavoured coffees you can get out of a vending machine.
This PSL was another one that broke out of the over-sweet expectation, which is always a good start. One taster rated it as their favourite, while others were less enthusiastic but not leaning too heavily negative. The spices seemed authentic to a pumpkin pie, but were a bit metallic. A less-favourable review described it as tasting like “canned wood panelling.”
On appearance, the Sonder PSL was also comfortably average. It looked good, but a bit bubbly rather than foamy.
The one who started it all, Starbucks is the coffee giant that can take the credit (or the blame) for the pumpkin spice craze. Their PSL was sweet, but not violently so, and heavy on the pumpkin with less spice and coffee flavours. It had balance, but one taster noted a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.
The positive tasting didn’t carry through in appearance, though. Orange grease spots floated on the surface with blobs of spice. Very unappetizing to look at.
The Penny’s PSL fit the expectation of being very sweet. Several tasters thought the flavours tasted fake, like a powdered hot drink. It got a general reaction of just … weird.
It looked pleasant enough. The latte had a nice foam, but the brown swirls were lighter in colour than others, making us suspect the amount of coffee really in this drink.
Timmies and McDonald’s can compete for the most ridiculously sweet PSL of the bunch. These are no less than warm syrup with milk. There was no coffee flavour, so it seemed more like a hot chocolate with slight pumpkin flavour and no spice. One taster commented that they “wouldn’t even give this to my ex-girlfriend.”
On appearance, this PSL was another one that looked like something from a vending machine. It mostly had uniform colour in the bit of foam and the brown was a light colour, suggesting no real espresso went in this drink.
The Best PSL in YQL
The winner was, to our own surprise, Starbucks. Most tasters named it as their favourite, and Bread Milk & Honey had plenty of votes as another favourite, giving them the runner-up spot. Third place goes to Sonder, followed equally by Cupper’s, The Penny, and Esquires. The two fast food options — Tim Hortons and McDonald’s — easily come in the bottom two spots.
However, we discovered that even the best PSL is still a pretty bad coffee. So the winner of this tasting should actually go to a ninth coffee shop that we visited.
We stopped in at Stoketown and were told that, despite requests, they aren’t jumping on the pumpkin spice craze. Instead, we were offered a free chocolate croissant in consolation, and it was delicious.
Thanks to Andrea, Lyndsay, Jenelle, and Paul at The Port Coworking Space for lending their palates for tasting.