Battle between brands: The pumpkin spice latte


Mila Brandson, Contributing Writer

The annual release of the pumpkin spice latte, a quintessential fall beverage for many, marks the beginning of commercial autumn. This year, Aug. 27 was the start of the pumpkin coffee craze, with Starbucks releasing their version of the drink along with other fall menu additions. Although it’s been 16 years since Starbucks initially launched the latte, the public demand continues to increase. In that time, numerous other fast food companies have debuted their own variations of the drink and the controversial question bound to rise–which version of the pumpkin spice latte is the overall best?

In the spirit of the season, we decided to put three mainstream brands’ autumn coffees to a side-by-side test, rating the appearance, aroma, and taste on a scale of one to five, one being unpalatable and five as fantastic. The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, Dunkin Donuts Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Signature Latte, and the McCafe Pumpkin Spice Latte were all purchased hot and in the smallest available size then evaluated by myself, and two fellow Fremd students. 

A tall Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, with a price at $4.55, contains 300 calories in 12 oz. Dunkin Donuts also sells their Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Signature Latte with 216 calories in 12 oz. in a small for $3.09. In contrast, a small McDonald’s McCafe Pumpkin Spice Latte comes with 270 calories in 8 oz for $2.24 when whole milk was selected over nonfat.

After purchasing all three, we took a shot at predicting the outcome. We collectively agreed that the Dunkin Donuts version would most likely be the sweetest, McDonald’s with a weaker flavor, and Starbucks as the overall best.

Then came the time for the evaluation. We began by first examining Starbucks. In the appearance category, we unanimously ranked it a 4 out of 5 because of the orange tint to the coffee, light foam that wasn’t quickly melted away by the steam, and garnish of cinnamon. The fragrance was dominated by sweet floral notes and a hint of citrus, similar to a spiced vanilla candle. The flavor was compared to the aromatic, but sugary taste of a gingerbread cookie and was given a 4 out of 5 because of being slightly acidic.

The next beverage we tasted was from McDonald’s. They presented their adaptation of the drink with only a mild amount of foam that disappeared into the coffee quickly, so it was rated between 1 and 3 for appearance. Minimal pumpkin spice scent was detected, and the most noticeable smell was simply coffee. In fact, the taste contained a much fainter pumpkin flavor and felt more like drinking semi-sweet coffee than a seasonal latte designed to embody autumn. It was ranked between a two and four, but seemed to place higher if the person tasting enjoyed regular coffee with fewer additions.

Finally, we assessed Dunkin Donuts Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Signature Latte, which received a rating from 4 to 5 in presentation because of the fluffy foam and star-shaped spice topping. It had a very strong, aromatic smell, almost like a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, the taste was extremely bitter and overly spiced; it even paralleled to eating a candle. We all scored it a 1 out of 5 as we would probably not drink it again. 

As a whole, our favorite was the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte as it best met our expectations in the assessment categories and contained the most pumpkin flavor. The McCafe Pumpkin Spice Latte was another recommended option specifically for coffee-lovers who prefer a stronger coffee taste. We found that the true answer to the inquiry of PSL quality is solely dependent on personal preference.