We’ve reached back-to-school season. Leaves are beginning to fall, and temperatures are dropping. September arrives in just a few days.
This means crazed fall celebrants are already pulling sweaters out from the dark recesses of their closets, lighting apple cinnamon candles, and flocking to Starbucks for that one, sickly sweet drink that seems to signal the beginning of the season: the pumpkin spice latte (otherwise known as PSL).
Many throughout recent history have bemoaned the rise of the pumpkin spice latte. Since Starbucks latched onto this creation and promulgated it, the drink has only risen in stardom, achieving greater and greater pinnacles of commercial achievement. These days, we don’t just have pumpkin spice lattes; we have pumpkin spice Oreos, Peeps, and popcorn. Those who hashtag their Instagram pictures #PSL jump for joy; the rest of us wonder if anything remains sacred.
Pumpkin spice has turned into a frightening monster of commercialism. It’s the kitschy Christmas tree ornaments that show up in stores at Halloween, or the sickeningly sweet Valentine’s Day candy we see stockpiling around New Year’s. Pumpkin spice—a seemingly innocuous and old-fashioned flavor—has been corrupted by big business commercialism.
But there’s another way: a possibility for respite and enjoyment even amid the #PSL hullabaloo. Here are five drinks which ought to be enjoyed instead of pumpkin spice lattes.
1. Chai Tea
This is an obvious choice. But it’s important to put first because it most resembles pumpkin spice in flavor, as it contains most of the same spices (without the same sickeningly sweet taste). Although the pre-blended chai powders and mixes procurable in stores or in coffee shops are alright, the best chai is made from scratch.
2. Earl Grey Tea
There’s nothing more suited to smoky, rainy, or gloomy weather than earl grey tea. Brew it strong, then add a spoonful of honey or sugar and a dash of cream.
Alternatively, make a “London Fog latte”: earl grey tea with a little vanilla syrup and milk. (Extra hipster points go to the individual who adds a bit of lavender syrup, as well).
3. Honey Cinnamon Latte
In one of my favorite coffee shops—Big City Coffee, in Boise, Idaho—they call this the Bit O’ Honey. Of course, many coffee purists would argue that a plain, unsweetened latte is better. (I’d agree.) But that’s not why people order the PSL. Flavored lattes are popular because a lot of Americans like their coffee sweet.
The Bit O’ Honey is better than a PSL—in part, because it’s simpler. The flavor is less muddled with muggy sweetness. Add honey (and maybe a dash of vanilla) to coffee and hot milk, then sprinkle cinnamon on top. The latte has that slight spice from the cinnamon, and still jives with the dark coffee better than a mad rush of pumpkin and sugar.
4. Spiced Apple Cider
Perhaps the greatest travesty pumpkin spice lattes have committed is their usurpation of autumn’s rightful queen beverage: apple cider. Not apple cider powders or mixes, or store-bought apple juice, of course. The queen of autumn is freshly pressed apple cider—hot or cold, simmered with spices or plain. It’s the drink you carry around at a corn maze, serve during a chili cookout, or sip while you finish your Thanksgiving baking or carve pumpkins. Apple cider reigns supreme over our taste buds.
Some stores carry good apple cider, but if you can grab some jugs from a local apple orchard, you’ll be happier for it. Heat it on the stovetop, and add whole cloves, a cinnamon stick, star anise or fresh grated nutmeg, and orange peel. If you want it boozy, add a little bourbon.
Apple cider is better than a pumpkin spice latte will ever be. If you want a jolt of espresso, have espresso. Buy a cappuccino, or a latte. But if you want fall, don’t drink the sickly PSL. Drink cider.
5. Hot Cocoa
Hot chocolate is perhaps the epitome of the cold weather drink. It’s not something you crave on a hot summer’s day, or even a quiet spring evening. It’s the beverage you want to sip after a day spent raking leaves or shoveling snow. It’s the ultimate beverage of comfort.
That is why cocoa is the last drink on this list: the transition beverage, if you will, from fall to winter. It’s the one we most associate with childhood, and thus is perfect for autumn and winter nostalgia.
Add a shot of espresso to your cocoa, or a dash of cinnamon and chili. Make homemade marshmallows to sprinkle on top, or add a splash of vanilla and salt. However you enjoy your cocoa, know that you’re partaking in a long-standing drinking tradition, not embracing the faux-fall frenzy of commercial America.
One Final Observation
If you want the taste of pumpkin spice in your mouth, of course, there is one important and irreplaceable way to do it: making pumpkin pie. Or pumpkin bread, or pumpkin waffles, or pumpkin pancakes. Pumpkin is a delightful item to bake with. But perhaps controversially, I think there are much better things to drink.
So enjoy the glories of the season. Revel in cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. Drink in the rich, warm flavors of apple and pumpkin.
But please: do not buy pumpkin spice Peeps. Or, if you can manage it, pumpkin spice lattes. We must turn back the tide of pumpkin spice commercialism before it’s too late. Future generations will thank you for your sacrifice.