Eating Badly: The Death Rattle of Pumpkin Spice

Food Features Death Rattle

RIP Pumpkin Spice, 2003-2015.

Sorry. I know that’s just wishful thinking, and not entirely accurate. For one, although the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte was first introduced in 2003, it didn’t really reach critical mass as a national obsession until a number of years later. Now, though, in 2015, as the company struggles against ingredient-based backlash and adds “real pumpkin” to the drink for the first time in its existence, it’s probably safe to say that the PSL heyday has long since passed—and with it, the heyday of “Pumpkin Spice” as a cultural zeitgeist.

At least, that’s what the data is suggesting. Like so many food trends before it, such as the baconization of everything (although that one is practically evergreen), pumpkin spice must eventually recede as it roared into life. Allow me, then, to offer a eulogy and a few parting shots.

The very idea of “pumpkin spice” as a flavor is like the perfect storm of buzzwords and associations to create liquid crack in the beverage industry. Yes, pumpkin spice can be found all over the food market as well—from Pringles to candy corn to Oreos—but beverages is where it reigns supreme, and the reasons are anything but difficult to understand.

This flavor combination and everything it suggests taps into so many lucrative niches at the same time, it’s like a money-generating overload. Oft-noted is the lure of seasonality and the desire of consumers for rituals—the same way people excitedly rush out to buy their favorite Christmas treats or welcome back the McRib in whatever sporadic months it appears. But beyond that, the root is even simpler: We’re a nation of gluttons, and “pumpkin spice,” in just about any application, is a not-so-veiled euphemism for “sugar.” You simply don’t find it in any application that isn’t ludicrously sweet.

Nowhere is this more true than in pumpkin beer, which is something we know quite a lot about at Paste. Before stepping up our blind-tastings with some truly daunting samplings of 116 single IPAs and 115 DIPAs, our pumpkin beer rankings were far and away the most-read beer pieces we’d ever done, and that’s really saying something, given that these offerings are only available for maybe a quarter of the year. Predating the PSL craze by more than two decades, modern pumpkin beer arrived via the Buffalo Bill’s brand in the late 1980s and has since gone on to make itself the most ubiquitous and instantly profitable of all seasonals. Not even objective quality is necessarily a key to success in this demo—and we should know, because we just blind-tasted 45 more of them last week. Not even the beer industry respects pumpkin beer! Immediate case in point: I sat at Great American Beer Fest this past week and watched as only ONE out of the 90-plus categories was denied a gold medal recipient. Guess which one? Pumpkin beer.

Just look at one pumpkin beer in particular: Southern Tier’s infamous Pumking, which even among the field of 45 in a blind tasting was instantly recognized by every single person who brought their nose anywhere near the glass. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the American liquor market—amazingly saccharine in its sweetness, while simultaneously claiming to be the opposite. Every year we taste it anew, and every year we reaffirm that it’s simply too artificial and too sweet, even as legions of faithful let us know just how wrong we are. I’ve come to assume that these fans represent the same segment of the population who are able to drink a full bottle of Not Your Father’s Root Beer while ignoring the fact that the experience is like firing a caulking gun full of glucose syrup directly into the eyeballs so it can absorb into the bloodstream as quickly as possible.

Perhaps, though, the fact that we’ve now apparently passed “peak pumpkin spice” means there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. As PSL consumption slows, the natural foods movement continues to grow and the nation grows more conscious of both the gimmickry and sugar-laden health issues presented by pumpkin spice, it simply feels like a trend that is being outgrown by the very same 20-40 age bracket of middle-class white people where it first took root.

The endgame is when we all admit that to vault “pumpkin” into rarified flavor territory was a farce to begin with, given its inherent near-flavorlessness. It was simply a gourd that was in the right place at the right time—if Starbucks had decided that the acorn squash better fit the color palette of the cups they were producing for fall, we could all be sitting around drinking artificially flavored and spiced acorn squash lattes and pairing them with acorn spice M&Ms right now. Really rolls off the tongue, right?

And so, if you want a cupful of sugar, by all means go get yourself a tremendously sweetened latte, but don’t lie to yourself about the motivation behind the action—it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the appreciation of pumpkin or the generalized idea of the fall season. Starbucks’ PSL even comes adorned with a promise of now … somehow … having incorporated actual pumpkins, although good luck picking out the flavor of a gourd in the drink when most people could be forgiving for forgetting that there’s apparently espresso in there as well.

RIP, Pumpkin spice. You will not be missed.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. He’s conflicted about the fact that his own pumpkin homebrews are always praised so strongly. You can follow him on Twitter.

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