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The Battle Of The Pumpkin Spice Lattes: State College Edition

Fall is finally here, State College! The season of cozy sweaters is back, and campus looks like it’s straight out of a movie. But most importantly: the pumpkin spice latte is back in style.

Though now a days, it seems we have pumpkin-flavored everything. From pumpkin spice hummus to pumpkin spice Pringles, we can’t avoid that cinnamon spiced flavor. Penn State is certainly no exception to the pumpkin spiced craze. With dozens of coffee shops downtown, there are endless attempts and renditions of the pumpkin spice latte. Though Starbucks is famous for giving the PSL its glory, that doesn’t stop every other java joint from taking a stab at their own brew of this autumn staple.

So which pumpkin drink reigns superior in State College? My friend and fellow staff writer, Kaitlyn Dividock, helped me tackle some of the most popular coffee shops around campus. This week we went undercover as the ultimate white girl investigators. Our mission? Try as many PSLs as possible until we find the perfect one.

Obviously we couldn’t follow through this task without some main guidelines and criteria. Here are the top factors we took note of when tasting our lattes:

Essence of Pumpkin: How detectable was the pumpkin flavor?

Sweetness: Was it too sweet? Not sweet enough? Just right?

Harmony of the Spices: How was the balance of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove?

Price: Was it affordable? Was the PSL worth it?

Presentation: How aesthetically pleasing was the PSL?

Each category can award up to 10 points for each latte. With 5 different factors, the highest score a PSL can achieve is 50. Let’s get to it!

1. Barne’s And Noble Starbucks- Tall Pumpkin Spice Latte 

When I trotted into The HUB,  I fully intended on swinging by the Starbucks on the main floor. I took one look at the line and actually laughed– the line was actually that long. So I said “Screw this,” and just went upstairs to the bookstore, the untapped Starbucks resource. It has to be the same thing, right?

Essence of Pumpkin: 5/10 Eh. The scalding hot whole milk was so prominent that I couldn’t really focus on anything else. I’m a skim milk kinda gal, so lattes usually taste oddly rich. If the pumpkin taste in this latte was a student in class, he would be present. However, he was not actively participating.

Sweetness: 6/10 I exclusively drink coffee that’s almost black, so anything else I order I expect a sugar rush. This was not the case! This PSL was very lightly sweet, not at all over powering. Believe it or not, I would have enjoyed it a bit sweeter.

Harmony of the Spices: 8/10 The spices were on point, with just enough cinnamon sprinkled on top. The tastes were detectable, but not too overpowering.

Price: 3/10 Oh HELL no. This “tall” PSL took a $4 dollar swing at my Lion Cash.

Presentation: 4/10 Honestly, by the time I finished this drink, the cinnamon speckles gathered to the corners of the cup. All I could think of was an army of tiny ants invading my PSL.

Total Score: 26/50

2. Irving’s- “Autumn Spice Latte”

When I walked into Irving’s, I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t spot the PSL anywhere on the menu. Then my gaze shifted towards a huge sign, advertising about 5 fall themed drinks.

How lovely! At this point I was a bit sick of the PSL, and I didn’t want a pumpkin dreamsicle milkshake concoction because clogging my arteries would really ruin the fun autumn mood, you know? So, I opted for the Autumn Spice Latte. I know, sue me.

irvings

 Essence of Pumpkin: 9/10 Well, there wasn’t much pumpkin. But let me tell you, the essence of autumn was strong in this one. Very, very nice.

 Sweetness: 7/10 Not too sweet at all. There was a solid balance. 

Harmony of the Spices: 9/10 Perfection! Finally some interesting flavors. I could definitely taste not only cinnamon, but other various spices as well. A nice change of pace from your average ‘sweet hot milk latte’ er, I mean, PSL. 

Price: 7/10 This small latte was about 3.25. Not horrendous, but still an investment. Worth it though!

Presentation: 8/10 I was a fan. Nothing that blew me away, but it was aesthetic enough.

Total Score: 40/50

3. McClanahan’s- ‘Pumpkin Spice’ Beverage

McClanahan’s was not an intended destination for a PSL. I did not plan this. I was picking up groceries, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the charming “Pumpkin Spice” letters in orange sharpie on a piece of printer paper. I groaned and thought, “I have to do it.”

mcclanahans PSL

 I don’t know what I expected as I watched the spitting, sputtering, and frothy liquid ooze out of the vending machine. Needless to say, it was a bit…underwhelming.

mclanahans latte
.

Essence of Pumpkin: 1/10 It was not there. At all. I was open-minded, but, just, no.

Sweetness: 4/10 The sweetness teleported me back to the days when I would eat glazed Entenmann’s donuts from the super market. But instead of a nice, fresh donut, imagine one that had been left out on your kitchen table for about 5 days. That’s how I would describe the sweetness. Oh, and just a HINT of cardboard.

Harmony of the Spices: 3/10 There was a trace of cinnamon for about 2 seconds. It was great while it lasted.

Price: 8/10 This PSL was about 2 bucks. The price makes sense.

Presentation: 1/10 Do I have to give this points?

TOTAL: 17/50 

4. Sheetz- Pumpkin Pie Latte 

sheetz

Sheetz has been in the downtown coffee joint game for a little over a week. So naturally, they are the underdog. However, don’t be fooled! This PSL packed a punch.

Pumpkin Flavor: 10/10 The flavor profile for the late was 100 percent pumpkin. No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.

Balance of Sweetness: 7/10 Surprisingly, it wasn’t sweet at all. Yeah, it had whipped cream, but it melted in a minute. I didn’t mind it. This latte actually had a more defined coffee flavor, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. It was creamy, flavorful, and wonderful, and I finished the whole thing without gagging at it being too sweet. Good job, Sheetz!

Harmony of the Spices: 5/10 The spices were very faint, to be honest. They were definitely masked by the bitterness of the actual coffee flavor, but they were hinted in the aftertaste. All in all, they could have been featured a little more.

Price: 9/10 I got the small, which to be fair, was plenty of pumpkin spice latte for me. It was a little more than two bucks. Anything bigger has always been (way) too much. I thought paying less than three dollars for this thing was totally reasonable. Happy wallet, happy me!

Presentation: 10/10 Sheetz’s version followed the typical layout of a standard PSL. Whipped top, latte underneath, nothing too fancy about it. I’ll admit I’m pretty partial to Sheetz’s MTO style cup though.

 TOTAL = 39/50

5. Panera- Pumpkin Spiced Latte


panera

Price: 2/10 $4.34 after tax… ALMOST FIVE DOLLARS?! Are you kidding me?! For a college student on a budget (so, me) this drink was entirely too expensive. Panera also only offers one size for their PSLs, which is a real bummer for people like me because the size of the cup was way too big for my liking.

Balance of Sweetness: 4/10 It was super sweet. There was an abundance of whipped cream took a while to melt into the latte. There was a lot of spice action that added a ton of flavor that added a temporarily distracted me from the heavy sweetness, but not for very long.

Presentation: 8/10 I’m not going to lie; it was very visually appealing to me. It wasn’t messy, it had great color to the latte, there were cute little bits of nutmeg sprinkled sporadically throughout the drink. However, the menu promised me a salted caramel drizzle and I, for reasons I wish I know, did not receive this fun addition.

Pumpkin Flavor: 5/10 As for the main ingredient of this drink, I feel like it got lost in all of the other crazy flavors happening. I missed it a lot.

Harmony of Spices: 1/10 Zero harmony. Not kidding. I was blasted solely with nutmeg. I’m not even sure they added any other spices. If they did? I’d have no idea. Yo, Panera, where’s the cinnamon at?

 TOTAL = 20/50 (Boo)

6. Dunkin’ Donuts- Pumpkin Swirl Latte

dunkin donuts

Price: 8/10 $2.64. Not bad for the size! I can’t be mad about it, at least it was less than four dollars! (Cough, Panera, cough)

 Balance of Sweetness: 8/10 There was a very good balance of sweetness with occasional sparks of bitter flavor. The froth stuck to my upper-lip, so I guess that’s always a good sign.

 Presentation: 4/10 Average. There really wasn’t anything special about it. Pretty basic and boring, which seems to fit right in with its most popular consumer!

 Pumpkin Flavor: 5/10 It really tasted more like cinnamon and nutmeg more than pumpkin. The pumpkin flavor got pushed aside, which was super disappointing. Verdict? The spices dominated the flavor completely.

 Harmony of Spices: 3/10 As earlier stated, there really wasn’t a cohesive marrying of the spices. They were really heavy and totally bullying the pumpkin flavor into never popping into the conversation at all.

 TOTAL = 28/50

 I hope you appreciated our consumption of approximately 1000 calories of pumpkin spice lattes for the sweet sake of journalism. Here are the point round-ups.

  1. Irving’s – 40/50 – 80%
  2. Sheetz – 39/50 – 78%
  3. Dunkin’ Donuts – 28/50 – 56%
  4. Barnes and Noble Starbucks – 26/50 – 52%
  5. Panera – 20/50 – 40%
  6. McClanahan’s – 17/50 – 34%

So what have we learned today? If you’re lookng for a faithful fall drink, head down to Irving’s. On the other hand, unless you’re life depends on it, don’t pick up a pumpkin spice ‘beverage’ from McClanahans. Happy pumpkin spicing, Penn State!

About the Author

Carolyn Popescu

Current senior studying Advertising and Visual Arts, Carolyn has a passion for entertainment and music. She also loves photography, film, graphic design, social media, and all things in between. She's the current Sony Music Marketing Representative for State College, so be sure to reach out to her with any local music scene questions, ideas, proposals, or if you just need someone to geek out about music with.

(Contact her through [email protected] or [email protected])

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