Illustration by Juliette Toma

The Secret Story of How the Pumpkin Spice Latte Came to Be

Peter Dukes, Director of Espresso for Starbucks, reveals the untold history of how his team invented a new flavor of coffee and changed food forever.

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Oct 13 2016, 2:55pm

Illustration by Juliette Toma

Pumpkin spice has gone from a simple latte flavor to a massive gastronomical phenomenon. Consumers can now purchase pumpkin spice bagels, Pringles, whey powder, and even dog food. In 2014 alone, a whopping 37 percent of US consumers reported buying pumpkin spice-flavored goods. It's easy to forget the flavor originated at Starbucks when even Cedar's Foods sells a pumpkin spice hummus, but Peter Dukes, the Director of Espresso for Starbucks, and his team remember the true origin of pumpkin spice.

"We had successfully developed recipes for holiday beverages like Eggnog Latte and Peppermint Mocha, and we were looking for a new beverage to add to the fall lineup," Dukes tells Broadly. "In 2003, a small group of us gathered in what we call the 'Liquid Lab' to brainstorm what flavors captured the essence of fall."

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The team came up with options like chocolate, caramel, and pumpkin, and then brought in customers to taste test their creations. Pumpkin spice was rated lower than the other flavors, but it still stood out to the Starbucks team, so they decided to move forward with a new inspiration: pumpkin pie. "For inspiration, we brought in fall decorations and began to explore ideas for a pumpkin-inspired espresso beverage," Dukes recalls. "We would sample a forkful of pumpkin pie, followed by a sip of espresso—exploring which flavors from the pie best complemented the coffee."

Dukes and his team wanted the flavor to complement "the bean," as he refers to Starbucks espresso. "We're diligent in our approach to trying new things and exploring flavors that complement the bean," Dukes says. "When we are looking to create a new beverage, we always start with celebrating our passion—coffee."

Photo via Flickr user hirotomo t

To ensure originality, the team took over three months to test the pumpkin spice flavor. "We played with the spice and the level of sweetness, tasting hundreds of different versions," Dukes says. "Ultimately, we found that the spicy notes of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg brought out the espresso, letting the coffee shine through." Since the flavor debuted at stores in 2003, Starbucks estimates it has sold 200 million Pumpkin Spice lattes.

Pumpkin spice became a boon for many brands. Coffee companies copied Starbucks and the flavor spread across markets to food, alcohol, and fragrance. Some of these pumpkin spice-flavored goods, like cookies and candles, are obvious, while others come across as bizarre. McDonald's Japan, for instance, recently debuted pumpkin spiced french fries, drizzled in a mixture of the seasonal sauce and chocolate.

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Pumpkin spice is so prevalent that consumers are never shocked to see a new pumpkin spice product. In 2014, a photograph of a Durex Pumpkin Spice condom made the rounds on the internet, which many considered real until the company tweeted out a denial: "We've heard talk that we launched a Pumpkin Spice condom. We can't claim this one, but we do love it when people spice it up in the bedroom."

It's easy to see how the amazing popularity of the flavor might have allowed people to fall for the prank. Forbes estimates that consumers spent more than $500 million on pumpkin spice-flavored products in 2015, with an estimated $100 million going to Starbucks for the original drink. Strangely enough, the pumpkin spice craze has failed to boost pumpkin sales—Nielsen estimates 8.6 million fewer pumpkins were sold between 2011 and 2014.

Research shows that 72 percent of pumpkin spice consumers will only buy a pumpkin spice-flavored product once a season, but pumpkin spice continues to dominate popular culture and social media. This year, Starbucks even created a slightly bizarre Pumpkin Spice chat bot for consumers to talk with on Facebook. Dukes says the Starbucks team never expected the drink to become their most influential season flavor, but understands the drink's appeal and popularity: "[Pumpkin Spice] has come to represent the essence of the season for many of our customers: coziness, fall spices, pumpkins, and cooler weather, mixed with a little nostalgia."