Off The Menu: Beware, Here There Be Pumpkins

Posted by Christopher McClure on

Mention flavored coffee to any coffee drinker and you'll either get a reminiscing smile or a bored eye-role. Anyone who's had more than a few cups of joe is familiar with this part of the coffee world, a suburb of rundown nostalgia not unlike the an 80's theme park that still trudges along unchanged: think vanilla, hazelnut, blueberry, Irish cream. Those are the coffees I remember seeing in the aisle at the grocery store, the first coffees I remember liking (okay, finding slightly less disgusting). And those are now the coffees that I and so many other coffee geeks now glare at with the same look of disdain a five-star chef would reserve for a hot pocket. But before I lose the flavored coffee supporters out there, let me humbly walk into their most lauded temple, the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

"Come fellow believers, let us ascend to the utmost peak of autumnal bliss!"
-Someone wearing plaid somewhere
Photo by Consumerist
Though it's more of a coffee beverage and the flavor comes from syrup, Starbucks' biggest success might be the biggest representative of what the lovers love (it tastes like sweet sweet sugary fall) and what the haters hate (it doesn't taste like coffee, at all). The Pumpkin Spice Latte has brought about a new era in flavored coffee, an era where a drink has enough faithful adherents to create a secret code so you can get it early, has short stories written about it, and may have kicked off an entire trend of pumpkin flavored foods and beverages. And that's saying something considering that we don't actually like pumpkins unless they're in a pie.

"Aww, pretty pumpkins! Become pie or get lost." -America
Photo by Kim Abbot is licensed under CC BY 2.0
There are probably many reasons for the success of the pumpkin spice latte and the pumpkin cult that followed, but one of the biggest drivers of the flavophiles is that some people don't like the flavor of coffee. Which is an issue because coffee can be delicious. Coffee nerds hold coffee on a pedestal because they've put time and effort into it; they've learned how to make it and how to taste it. Coffee has more flavor compounds than wine: wine sits around 200, but coffee ranges from 850 to 1500, depending on who you ask, making coffee a complex, extremely flavorful beverage. So asking your barista to add some flavored syrup to a cup of single-origin, carefully brewed coffee could be (to them) the equivalent of asking a talented chef to slather ketchup and mustard on his dry aged, perfectly medium-rare T-bone.

"Oh, you want mint syrup in your coffee? Sorry, I think I need to go flip the vinyl
and then make a pour over using a stream of my own tears."
Photo by Matt Biddulph is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
But let's be honest, some coffees aren't worthy of a coffee nerd's tender love and adoration. Specialty coffees make up 37% of the coffee market; that means 63% might not be the kind of cup of coffee you'll want to savor on crisp autumn day while sporting your favorite flannel. And even that is a new trend: for the vast majority of history, coffee wasn't particularly tasty, and needed sugar and milk to make it palatable. And this is where the Pumpkin Spice Latte (and any other flavored coffee or vague coffee drink) has risen to it's glory: not everyone has access to good coffee. And sometimes you just want some drinkable coffee, so much that you'll make a deal with the devil to get it.
"So you want to be able to drink your coffee without cringing?
Oh, I can make that happen... can I ever make that happen."
So flavored coffee makes sense, but it comes with its own downsides: most flavored coffees (and grandiose Starbucks whipped cream receptacles) are flavored chemically, not naturally, and when you get into the world of Starbucks (or any other dessert-coffee purveyor), you're basically drinking candy. What's a coffee lover to do?

May I present the 'JUST GIVE IN' option?
Photo from The Stir
One option would be to go high class with the flavor, something like coffee brewed with dehydrated raspberries and Madagascar cocoa. Yeah, that honestly sounds amazing, but it's also not exactly available to everyone. My humble suggestion to those who can't do coffee straight up: go au naturale with the flavors, and start light, adding just enough to taste both the flavor and the coffee. My marketing department demands I inform you that, at Arabica, we like maple syrup, homemade caramel and chocolate syrup made from real chocolate (and they all taste pretty rad). We even have a pumpkin syrup that's all natural and actually has pumpkin in it at our Commercial St. location, if you must get in the spirit of fall.

But it's your coffee in the end, and the choice is yours. So if it's your thing, go ahead, get theBanana Foster Float coffee, or the Christmas Cookie coffee or the Big Ol' Chunk O' Cake coffee or whatever suits your fancy. Just not the Spicy Taco Flavored coffee. Really, that's just too far. Nobody wants coffee that makes your house smell like you "cooked up some taco seasoning with ground beef in a pan."

That is not a coffee flavor. Not in the slightest.

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