The pumpkin spice latte (PSL to its fans) has a reputation as an unserious drink. It’s not coffee, goes the sneering assessment, but a cup of sugary milk, ideal for those who love seasons but hate the taste of coffee. They’re the province of chains like Starbucks, Peet’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, not the Bay Area’s many third wave coffee shops, places that emphasize high quality coffee that’s usually a light roast, valued for its subtle tasting notes and best enjoyed without milk or sugar.
But some Bay Area coffee shops, like Andytown Coffee Roasters, Artís Coffee and Spruce Cafe, don’t think there has to be a division between those who appreciate high-end coffee and those who appreciate a sweet seasonal drink. These cafes offer the same drinks that Starbucks popularized, but with fresher ingredients and a lot less sugar.
“While we are normally coffee purists, we make some exceptions for the holidays. (We are not grinches, after all!)” Andytown Coffee Roasters cofounder Lauren Crabbe wrote in an email. The San Francisco roastery offered their version of a pumpkin spice latte at a one-off event in October, using spices from nearby Oaktown Spice Shop. They’re also making peppermint mochas for their upcoming “Winter Wonderland-ytown” event, where their goal is to produce something that’s “more flavor-driven than sweet,” Crabbe wrote.
At Artís Coffee in Berkeley, they offer a pumpkin spice latte and peppermint mocha every holiday season. “We’re not going to be the chef with his nose in the air that scoffs at a customer if they put some salt on their food,” said Walter Margerison, the company’s director of production. “Our customer appreciation is full spectrum. Not everyone can drink black coffee, whether it’s because they haven’t learned to appreciate it or they just genuinely don’t like it. It’s not our place to judge, and the same goes for these flavored beverages.”
When Artís first opened, they didn’t plan on offering seasonal drinks. They wanted to emphasize their coffee, which they source themselves from a variety of sustainable, ethically-run farms and roast in front of customers at their cafe to ensure they’re getting the freshest product. But when they hired Margerison, he urged them to reconsider. He pointed to the cultish devotion around Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte: the countdown to the day it arrives in store and the resulting flurry of social media excitement when fans finally get their hands on the drink (according to Starbucks, fans send out an average of 3,000 tweets per day about the drink during fall.) Why couldn’t Artis offer the drink and other seasonal drinks, but create their own, better take on them, using fresh ingredients?
The Artís team took a diligent approach to the drink’s creation. They used a mortar and pestle to crush up spices and experimented until the found the flavor profile they wanted. They put the final product, with a mix of warming spices, a small amount of sugar and pumpkin puree, on the menu and waited to see how customers would react.
“It was our top selling drink for pretty much the entire run,” Margerison said. “Each year when it comes out, people are fanatical about it.”
Now, the drink remains one of their their best sellers during the fall season that it’s available. (Their top selling drink? Another flavored coffee concoction, their vanilla latte made from a syrup the staff makes with vanilla beans.) During winter, they replace it with a peppermint mocha made with Ecuadorian chocolate and a mint simple syrup–“straight peppermint oil is like trying to drink fire,” Margerison said–they make themselves, which is equally as popular.
It’s a similar situation at Spruce Cafe in South San Francisco. When the cafe opened in the fall of 2016, they soon found that their customers expected them to offer seasonal drinks. The cafe makes their pastries in house, so manager Cynthia Dai realized that the spices and flavorings they used in their pastries could easily be added to their drinks. They started creating a pumpkin spice latte, but it required some tinkering. At Starbucks, they use large amounts of of sugar and spice in their specialty drinks to be tasted over their dark roasted coffee’s strong flavor. But since Spruce uses a light roast espresso blend from San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee, they had to work to make the drink balanced, and not overwhelm the coffee. They settled on a simple syrup mixed with pumpkin puree and a pumpkin pie spice blend to be used in the drink and also created an eggnog latte and a peppermint mocha featuring crushed up peppermint candies in the drink. (The peppermint mocha is the store’s top seller.)
It makes sense for the shop to offer those kinds of drinks, said Dai. “If you don’t, the menu is really limited,” she pointed out. Plus, people crave different coffee drinks at different times. “I’m a serious coffee drinker when I go into coffee shops, I usually go for a macchiato or espresso or pour overs,” she said. “But sometimes I just want something really sweet. It all depends on the drinker…what their lifestyle is. We’re trying to accustom to their lifestyle more [so] than making the customer get used to our offerings.”
Margerison, a Massachusetts native who grew up drinking Dunkin’ Donuts’ sweetened, milky coffee, agrees. “When I moved to the Bay Area, it was interesting for me to see how much just snobbery there was,” he said of the local coffee scene. “People are on one side or the other. They’re either for [specialty drinks], or they’re these purists that can’t see any other way. They believe that coffee should be coffee and only coffee. We’re kind of these weirdos in the middle.”
And their customers appreciate that. One day, a regular came into Artís with a friend and noticed their sign announcing the pumpkin spice latte. He ordered one, then walked over to Margerison and told him how happy he was that the shop offered the drink. “He goes, ‘We like coffee but we’re not coffee people. These other shops in the Bay Area, you’d never find something like [this],’” Margerison recalled. “He was giddy that he could order something like that because he loves it but he was almost embarrassed, because there’s a stigma in the Bay Area about drinking coffee like that. That really stuck with me because I like being able to make any customer that walks through our doors something they’re going to enjoy. I don’t ever want someone to feel like they’ve ordered something they shouldn’t or we’re judging them by their order.”