As we’ve established, love it or hate it, pumpkin spice is here to stay. It has run the gamut from novelty to basic to just a fact of life. And while you can find the nutmeg-forward flavoring in the likes of baked goods, breakfast cereal, and bathroom spray, it’s Starbucks that’s responsible for its domination. This year is the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the pumpkin spice latte, developed by Starbucks to answer the question “What does an espresso version of fall’s most seasonal dessert taste like?”
Another thing that’s happened since 2003: The global temperature has continued to rise; according to NASA, there’s been a marked increase in global land-ocean temperature, as well as methane concentrations in the atmosphere, and a rise in sea level due to melting ice sheets in the past 20 years. This has ensured that on August 24 — the date Starbucks released the PSL this year — in most parts of the country it did not feel at all like fall. And it’s making for a dissonant pumpkin spice season.
There are plenty of places in the U.S. where it has always been warm around the autumnal equinox. But pumpkin spice, along with apple cider, maple, and toasted marshmallow, are all “fall flavors” that reference a specific version of fall, namely the one found in New England. It’s Mr. Autumn Man, it’s pilgrims, it’s flavors like cinnamon and allspice made available to white people via colonization and the Dutch East India Company being shown off in a pie filled with New World squash. That early colonial history has radiated through the entire country. When the PSL arrives each year, we’re not meant to be thinking about fall in Arizona. We’re meant to picture leaves turning orange, sweater weather, and apple picking.
But it is increasingly not Mr. Autumn Man weather, even in the Northeast, when Starbucks launches the PSL, partially because the company keeps moving up the release date. The drink was originally introduced in October of 2003. By 2015, Starbucks welcomed the season on September 8, and since 2018 the launch date has been in August. The earlier timeline is of course meant to capture a devoted consumer base, especially as the company continues to face scrutiny over its union-busting tactics. But other companies have also been moving up their fall menu release dates; Dunkin’ released its fall offerings, including pumpkin spice drinks, on August 16 this year. Dairy Queen launched a pumpkin pie Blizzard on August 28.
They also could be doing it precisely because of climate change. “Maybe the enduring heat is a thing that just makes us imagine and crave that cooler weather and then it calls to mind pumpkin spice even earlier,” Jason Fischer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, told Axios. As if ordering a pumpkin spice latte is a spell to bring forth fall, with the added benefit of witchiness being another thing we associate with autumn in New England. Starbucks has added more cold beverages with fall flavors this year, like the pumpkin cream cold brew and the iced apple crisp oat milk shaken espresso, because cold beverages make up a vast majority of its beverage sales. Is that because iced coffee is a year-round treat, or because the atmosphere is so warm now that the audience for hot americanos is dwindling?
The science is extremely clear on what needs to be done to mitigate climate change, and unfortunately, ordering an iced pumpkin spice latte in August is not on the list. Maybe a future generation will begin to associate pumpkin spice not with brisk breezes and wool scarves, but with beach days and personal fans. Or maybe we should all be writing to our senators.