Autumn In A Cup
A month or so ago I began to see the telltale sign that autumn has officially arrived; not falling leaves and certainly not falling temperatures. No, the true mark of fall’s arrival is when my morning twitter feed is clogged with mentions of the year’s first pumpkin spice latte. Of course we have Starbucks to blame for this like many other sugar-bomb concoctions with the shared goal of making coffee taste less like, well, coffee. Introduced in 2003, the pumpkin spice latte has gained an obsessive following over the years but it is no longer just a Starbucks phenomenon; locally owned indie coffee houses are getting in on the action often making the drink year round to fill the void left by Starbucks’ mere seasonal offering.
Though coffee pervades almost every aspect of my life, I’ve never bellied up to the espresso bar for a PSL, as the Starbuckians lovingly refer to it. I’m a ristretto espresso man myself and I’ve just never felt the urge to combine coffee and pie in one paper sippy-cup. Still, it is hard to ignore such a popular craze so I set out to get to know the pumpkin spice latte.
It seemed only proper to begin my pumpkin latte journey with the original Starbucks experience but it is important to note that almost every café, espresso bar and coffee kiosk in the greater Richmond area is serving up a version of the drink. One notable exception is Lamplighter Roasting Company. I visited the local favorite and asked the man taking my order “do you have a seasonal pumpkin beverage?” He absorbed my question with a deadpan stare for several awkward seconds and then with soft matter-of-factness uttered “no” and continued to stare as if to remind me where I was and I had asked a silly question. Inwardly pleased, I ordered my espresso and left.
My Starbucks tall, non-fat, no whip, no sprinkles, pumpkin spice latte gave me a bad feeling about how this tasting journey would turn out. I visited the Carytown location where my drink was well made in a prompt fashion and I carried it over to a table to be introduced properly amongst the throng of a bustling Sunday afternoon café crowd. What I tasted was, at best, nondescript. There was a stark lack of any flavor reminding me of pumpkin or spice, much less coffee. My general impression was that of warm, earthy, sweet milk.
Not to be discouraged, I crossed the street to one of my favorite Richmond coffee spots, Ellwood Thompson Café, certain they would have a unique approach to the pumpkin latte. I was pleased to find a painted pumpkin bearing the ET take on the PSL; a latte made with pureed and spiced organic pumpkin sweetened with agave and paired with Blanchard’s espresso and organic milk in a handcrafted latte. My drink was expertly prepared by the barista and I eagerly dove in for my first sip. The handcrafted latte was noticeably better than the Starbucks version but I still had difficulty tasting anything besides earthy milk. There was nutmeg all over the latte foam, which added a nice touch, but I found the agave nectar cloyingly sweet and after a few sips I had to put the cup down and seek out water to rinse the burning sweetness off my palate.
It was at this point, with an unpleasant feeling on my tongue and a twinge of discouragement creeping into my mind that I began to question the idea of this drink in general. Pumpkins obviously make us think of autumn but they’re not particularly versatile as ingredients. There isn’t a great deal of flavor in a pumpkin which is precisely why we spice it up with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, you name it. Pumpkin is basically a vessel for the sweet spices we enjoy during the holidays. Wouldn’t a more powerful autumn flavor serve the same purpose with more verbosity? Sticking with the pie theme, why aren’t we falling in love with pecan pie lattes or even sweet potato lattes? These are flavors that could really excite the palate.
I had one more long-shot, hail-mary hope for a memorable pumpkin latte; the able, creative hands of Richmond’s most tenured Barista, Kimmy Certa of GlobeHopper CoffeeHouse & Lounge. I sent Kimmy a message outlining my pumpkin latte woes and challenging her to create the best pumpkin coffee beverage I’ve ever had; something I’d willingly order again. Kimmy rose to the occasion and then some. She roasted a whole pumpkin until the sugars had caramelized then pureed it with pie spices and sugar. She then reduced the puree on the stove until her entire pumpkin amounted to six ounces of handmade pumpkin sauce. She crafted a lovely macchiato using fresh milk and Counter Culture espresso. The pumpkin spice macchiato was perfect in every way. It tasted like lightly sweetened and spiced pumpkin and espresso. The milk was no longer dominant but simply a textural vehicle. I enjoyed every single sip and I would definitely order the drink again. This is not a regular menu item at GlobeHopper but it will be the featured drink special for the month of November. I’m eager to try it with some of the liqueurs the cafe features; perhaps spiced rum?
You can find a pumpkin spice latte just about anywhere in town. There is always Starbucks if you’re not close to any of Richmond’s fabulous indie shops like Crossroads, Lift, Ellwoods Café, GlobeHopper or any of the other great spots around the area. There is pumpkin spice latte in the local hospitals at The Perfect Blend, at the wine bar Café Caturra and even down in Petersburg at Demolition Coffee. I’m just not sure this is the best we can come up with to embody autumn in a coffee beverage. There are so many flavors that compliment great coffee far better than the bland, earthy pumpkin. We have given the Starbucks pumpkin creation seven years of fame and I think it has worn out its welcome. We are a creative city with discerning tastes and a not-so-closeted obsession with restaurants and cafes; don’t you think its time we start something new?
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