Taking The #PSL

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By Charlotte Payne

Coffee to me is a means to an end, to provide a handy caffeine boost before my 9am or to last me till 4am the day of an urgent deadline. Simply put, I will quite literally drink anything. However, having seen the cult of the Pumpkin Spice Latte reach new heights in recent years – its official (yes, official with the blue tick) Twitter page, founded on October 10 this year, already has over 18,000 followers – I resolved to investigate the fuss surrounding the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

My first port-of-call was, naturally, Starbucks. As I walked through the doors of the branch of North Road, I was assailed with pumpkins, everywhere – cups, blackboards, photos, even nametags. It was almost enough to make a PSL-novice like me turn tail and leave the shop, dignity in tact before sacrificing it to the gods of the too-large coffee mugs and decorative loose beans.

Almost. And this was how, 10 minutes later, I was confronted with a tepidly brown extra-Guatemalan-shot-spiced monstrosity with a lurid orange pumpkin on the side of the cup signalling to all and sundry my beverage of choice. At this point, I’m not going to lie – it was yummy. But it did not explain the hype surrounding this drink. And in spite of my undiscerning coffee habits, I understand now why no regular coffee drinker would actually drink it – the “Pumpkin Spice Mix” masks any hint of coffee. One might as well order a cup of hot chocolate.

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Surprisingly, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is not a recent release. Launched way back in 2003, in recent years it has risen to dizzying heights of celebrity, driven by its primacy on social media (#PSL) and annual large-scale marketing campaigns, which has not only allowed it to latch itself onto the tastes of millennials, but also because it lends itself easily to stereotyping and online memes.

However, even more surprising is the fact that the PSL may have never been released at all.

According to Tim Kern, ex-Starbucks senior manager and product development exec, the PSL narrowly avoided shelving even though “a number of us thought it was a beverage so dominated by a flavour other than coffee that it didn’t put Starbucks’ coffee in the best light.” Well.

Unimpressed, I resolved to delve into its anatomy. In hindsight, it was little wonder that this little 350ml cup contained 330 calories. Actual pumpkin on the other hand, has 26 calories per 100 grams. Aside from matching the caloric value of 1.27kg of pumpkin, 100g of Dairy Milk and a whole Egg McMuffin, it also generously provides 75mg of caffeine, so at least we know it does the job. But what’s this? On its website, Starbucks lists a “Tall” Whole Milk PSL as containing 39gs of sugar – a whopping 130% of the daily sugar intake for those 11 and over recommended by the NHS.

Funnily enough, this August, Starbucks proudly announced that the PSL will henceforth be made “with real pumpkin and without caramel colouring”. In previous years, the most natural ingredient in the syrup that was termed “warm fall spices with [the] delicious flavour of pumpkin pie” was annatto, an orange food colouring derived from a tree seed. Its presence seemed rather superfluous to me, given the final drink turned out a murky beige.

Having come this far, I have yet to unravel the manic craze for all things PSL, and I will probably never let another one touch my lips again. But hey, at least this “fall” Starbucks fans can drink the PSL with the pride and satisfaction that 12 long years after its conception, it finally contains pumpkin.

Illustration: Eleanor Ryall

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