It's officially pumpkin spice season, with cinnamon and nutmeg scents now proliferating subway commutes everywhere. But it's not just Starbucks shilling out pumpkin-spiced goodies this season; M&M's just released a pumpkin spice flavor, while McDonald's and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf have their knockoff coffee versions.
So how did the coffee flavor go from random Starbucks offering to nationwide phenomenon? Starbucks, the father of the fall drink, started developing the flavor back in January 2003, Peter Dukes, Starbucks' director of espresso Americas, told The Daily Meal.
"We saw the success we were having with peppermint mocha and eggnog latte, seasonal beverages, and we wanted to expand in the fall period," Dukes said.
"We went to a huge brainstorming process and came up with 10 products, and took them out to customers," Dukes said. Naturally, chocolate and caramel flavors worked the best in testing, but the idea of a pumpkin coffee drink fell right in the middle of the spectrum.
"We realized there was something special around the pumpkin flavor [we developed], especially since there wasn’t anything around pumpkin at the time," Dukes said. So they took that and ran with it, testing out a variety of pumpkin-inspired flavors and mixing them with espresso. This meant setting up a "liquid lab" filled with Thanksgiving paraphernalia, complete with pumpkin pies, in the middle of January, just to get into the fall spirit.
"Anyone who is particular about their own pumpkin pie recipes knows there are a lot of pumpkin pie recipes," Dukes said. "We started to experiment with high-pumpkin, low-spice, low-pumpkin, high-spice combinations, ultimately landing on a recipe with more spice in it." And even though the final recipe doesn't actually have a note of pumpkin in it, the company landed on the Pumpkin Spice name, instead of opting for a more generic "Fall Harvest Latte."
In fall 2002, the final recipe was tested in Vancouver and Washington, D.C., and within the first week, sales exceeded expectations, especially compared to sales from peppermint mochas and eggnog. "We couldn't keep up initially," Dukes said, "We had to expedite inventory to the stores."
Such verve called for a national rollout of the flavor, which hit all American Starbucks stores the following year.
Now, the pumpkin spice latte is the most popular seasonal beverage of all time in Starbucks stores, with Starbucks estimating they have sold more than 200 million Pumpkin Spice Lattes since its rollout. And as the drink becomes more popular, more and more imitators are unveiled, from Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs' Pumpkin Spice Latte to McDonald's McCafé.
The flavor is slowly hitting international markets, with the U.K., Austria, Switzerland, and some markets in Latin America already serving the fall favorite. (The Pumpkin Spice Latte has already become the U.K.'s top-selling seasonal beverage as well). And the newest markets to get the fall flavor? Russia, Mexico, and more select markets in Europe.