The flavor of fall and its backstory via www.usatoday.com
When I think of pumpkin spice I think of all things fall, starting with pumpkin spice lattes. But the flavor’s range is wide with pumpkin spice breads, cookies, pasta sauces, and pumpkin spice-scented candles, body sprays, deodorants, soaps and so much more.
But what exactly is the the flavor that has come to characterize the cooling season? And how did it become a defining element of autumn?
One spoiler, for those who aren’t already aware: Pumpkin spice is not made with pumpkin.
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What exactly is pumpkin spice?
In spite of its name, pumpkin spice isn’t actually made with pumpkin. It’s a mix of spices meant to enhance pumpkin pie.
Spice maker McCormick debuted its Pumpkin Pie Spice in 1934 with intent to flavor pumpkin pie when canned pumpkin came to market, the company tells USA TODAY in an email. The spice brand’s mix eliminated the need to measure out specific quantities of varying spices by providing a bottled combination of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice along with sulfiting agents.
Pumpkin spice’s popularity beyond pumpkin pie is relatively new
Kevan Vetter, executive chef at McCormick, tells USA TODAY he thinks the popularity of the flavor started to take off around 2010.
“We have a global report called the ‘Flavor Forecast’ and then we identified pumpkin pie spice in 2010 as an emerging trend, and that was really at the beginning of where we started to see, both in restaurants and in (the) home, use start to pick up,” Vetter says, noting he thinks people were ready for a “twist on comfort” the spice combination delivered.
Since then, McCormick has seen a rise in sales.
“We have definitely seen a lift over the years and you know, (it’s) still a very seasonal sale for us,” he says noting that between September and December over the years, the company has started to see consumers use the spice for increasingly more things beyond pumpkin pie.
And the spice company has shared recipes of varying foods and drinks that use pumpkin spice, as well — including a pumpkin pie martini.
“The whole idea of pumpkin pie spice beyond pumpkin pie really has exploded,” Vetter says.
Where did Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte come in?
One of the most popular pumpkin spice delights is Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, which made its official debut on the coffee giant’s menu in 2003 in certain locations.
In fact, it’s Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage “of all time,” spokesperson Erin Shane Riley shared in an email. The company has sold more than 600 million pumpkin spice lattes in U.S. storefronts since the drink launched.
Many other coffee shops, including popular chain Dunkin’ Donuts, have come out with their own pumpkin spice coffee drinks, too. And following in the PSL’s successful footsteps, Starbucks has since launched Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew.
So, how did a pumpkin drink wind up on the menu at Starbucks nearly two decades ago?
Peter Dukes, who was product manager on Starbucks’ espresso team in 2002 and led development on the PSL, says he and his team brainstormed drinks that might resonate with customers in the fall with hazelnut, apple, cinnamon, chocolate and caramel bases — pumpkin was a flavor on the list of more than 100 ideas.
In a customer survey looking at factors such as purchase intent and uniqueness, the PSL came out high on uniqueness and low on purchase intent. But the uniqueness score was intriguing, according to Dukes.
“It’s a day and age where there was no pumpkin spice on the market … this idea did not exist,” Dukes says of 2002. “If you went down the grocery aisles … you would buy the pumpkin (to) make a pumpkin pie, but that that was it.”
It was also early on in terms of coffee culture in the U.S. — not everyone knew the difference between an espresso, latte and cappuccino.
Nonetheless, they moved forward with the PSL. They liked the idea. So, they sat down with it in what was then referred to as the “Liquid Lab” at Starbucks.
“Everyone has their own unique pumpkin pie recipes and so (what) we did is we actually would chunk up pumpkin pie and pour a shot of espresso on it and and eat it,” Dukes says, explaining that it was important to learn what consistency the pumpkin element should be — a syrup (thinner) or a sauce (thicker).
Eventually, they hit the right balance of ingredients and the Pumpkin Spice Latte was born before launching the following year.
“Obviously it’s gone on (to) become a marker of fall,” Dukes says.
He believes the PSL helped to make that association between pumpkin spice and autumn for the masses.
“If you go back to that time period and (look for) pumpkin spice flavor, you couldn’t find it anywhere,” he says, noting that now, the category is everywhere. “I think we helped introduce millions of people to the idea and the concept of pumpkin spice.”
There are plenty of ways to enjoy pumpkin spice at home
Pumpkin spice is pretty versatile and can be used to add a warm flavor to a variety of foods — often in combination with pumpkin puree.
There are countless pumpkin recipes available to those interested in using the flavor at home for meals throughout the day. With breakfast ideas such as oatmeal, pancakes and waffles, and lunches and dinners with salads, pasta sauces and the like.