On the small, cobblestone block of Church Street in Old City, Sarah York pours a pumpkin spice latte, something she has been doing over the last thirteen years at Old City Coffee.
York, now an operations manager, says pumpkin spice was always an option on their menu.
“We carry all the savory pumpkin stuff,” said York. “You know, it’s just one of those things. [But] every year is a little different.”
What started out as a new, seasonal drink for the Fall evolved quickly into a signature flavor of popular culture in the blink of an eye.
The early release of pumpkin spice lattes, or PSL for short, angered a few Philadelphians in August, resulting in their protest of what they called “premature pumpkin spicing.”
Society also criticizes the people associated with this drink, saying it is a popular item among “all basic white girls”.
Yet every year, stores everywhere stock up on the growing list of pumpkin spice items, which now include lotion, soap, cereal, cream cheese, cookies and even liquor, instead of focusing solely on pumpkin spice flavored coffee. A flavor of coffee that was almost not even created by in 2003 continues to surprise people as it becomes more popular each year.
“Sociology is an excellent tool for explaining consistent patterns in social forces,” said Dustin Kidd, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Sociology at Temple University. “But surprise trends-whether it’s Harry Potter or the pumpkin spice latte- usually operate outside of those patterns. The phrase we use is ‘all hits are flukes.’”
This “fluke,” however, quickly expanded to other major companies, like Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, and Saxbys, as well as to small, locally owned coffee shops.
Across Philadelphia on 19th and Fairmount, Sarah Flood, the catering manager of Mugshots Coffeehouse, says how “if we didn’t have [pumpkin spice lattes], it’d be bad.”
“I first noticed [the pumpkin spice craze] when Dunkin Donuts did it,” said Flood. “When cold brew [first came out] came out, they did it too. They usually follow along with the trend.”
Although pumpkin spice has always been on the menu at Mugshots, apple cider and homemade pumpkin flavored food sell out more than any of their pumpkin spice drinks. Their selection of pumpkin spice bread, cheesecake, muffins, and whoopie pies affect their business more during the fall.
But the pumpkin spice on the market today is less pumpkin and more of some other stuff.
According to the Institute of Food Technologists, or IFT, the pumpkin spice flavor in a typical latte or muffin is a combination of 340 different food compounds, which tricks the brain into thinking it is an authentic pumpkin spice flavoring. The IFT also suggests if someone tried to make their own pumpkin spice recipe at home, it would not even come close to the flavor being sold.
The pumpkin spice on the market was flavored with a substance called 4-methylimidazole, or caramel coloring, before a study by the FDA revealed this substance causes an increased risk of lung tumors and cancer. Starbucks has since removed 4-methylimidazole from their recipe and instead started adding real pumpkins, an ingredient not found in the original recipe.
The IFT also explain pumpkin spice is such a popular flavor because “people in the Western culture associate pumpkin pie with the holidays, family gatherings, and nostalgia.” Dustin Kidd, however, believes otherwise.
“Whether they like the actual taste or they are driven by the psychological power of participating in a trend, […] I still insist that it’s a fluke,” explained Kidd. “These trends highlight how unpredictable humans really are.”
Back at Old City Coffee, York said she isn’t the biggest fan of pumpkin spice. But that didn’t stop her employer from making the decision to carry it year-round, a result of its popularity with their local customers and tourists.
As other coffee houses get ready to switch into peppermint gear, pumpkin spice lovers will still be able to get their fix in at least one Philly cafe.