A pumpkin spice roundup for people who don’t like pumpkin spice
Now that it’s October, we pumpkin spice people can officially enjoy our favorite seasonal flavor without judgement.
Pumpkin spice — a blend of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves — officially became a Starbucks latte in 2003 and since then the flavor has infiltrated everything from pasta and bagels to ice cream and beer. From late August until after Thanksgiving, there’s no escaping the power of pumpkin spice — so it’s understandable why there’s an equal amount of hatred and disdain for it.
I’m #teampumpkinspice. If the word pumpkin is on a box or a menu or on a coffee, I’m 100 percent going to buy it. October Trader Joe’s (which has the most and best pumpkin options) is my happy place.
But not everyone feels this way, including my colleagues Sara Butler and Jennifer Ianni. They skew pumpkin neutral and really only like pumpkin spice for its original intended purpose: pumpkin pie.
Still, in the spirit of the season, I tried to convert them to my team by having us try some classic pumpkin spice treats around San Diego. Here’s how it went:
Pumpkin Spice Latte
Starbuck’s PSL needs no introduction. It’s more than a drink — the coffee has a cult following and has nearly become a personality trait. Perhaps that’s why I’ve resisted the official drink of fall for so long.
Expectations: I’ve judged PSLs from afar for years, and always imagined them to taste artificial and overly sweet. (And after the first sip of the Kool Aid, I half expected my personality to change.)
Reality: The PSL’s flavor was surprisingly earthy and the pumpkin “sauce” (yes, that’s what it’s called) actually tasted like pumpkin. The small dollop of whipped cream — which I initially scoffed at, since I usually douse my pumpkin pie in the stuff — ended up being more than enough. However, the PSL was too rich. Once I drained my Grande cup, I had both a smile and a stomach ache. Next time, I’d switch to an alternative milk and get a Tall instead.
Price: Varies by size, but the Grande (no milk substitutions or add-ons) rings in at $5.25.
Where to get it: Any of the 141 Starbucks locations in San Diego. I’m guessing there’s one on your block ... but if not, check for a nearby location here: app.starbucks.com/store-locator.
Pumpkin score: 3 out of 5 pumpkins
Pumpkin Foam Cold Brew
A pumpkin cold brew is the perfect blend of coffee and flavoring — your drink is still mostly coffee without being overwhelmed with milk and pumpkin syrup. Though Starbucks makes a great Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, it’s time to branch out and try the one from local coffee chain, Better Buzz.
Expectations: Will Better Buzz be too cool to go all-in on pumpkin? I’m worried it will be coffee forward with just a hint of pumpkin.
Reality: Wow. The quality of the cold brew is smooth, without any hint of bitterness. The pumpkin cold foam is sweet, but not overpowering. And the cinnamon gives it just the right amount of “spice.” Because it’s iced, it’s actually refreshing and a good way to indulge in pumpkin spice even during one of our famous October heat waves.
Price: $5.50 for a regular; $6.50 for a large.
Where to get it: Better Buzz has locations in Miramar, Escondido, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Hillcrest, Encinitas, Fashion Valley, Point Loma, San Marcos and Mission Beach.
Pumpkin score: 5 out of 5 pumpkins
We all credit PSL for kicking off the pumpkin spice movement, but turns out Punkin Ale from Dogfish Head Brewery actually has the PSL beat. The brown ale — brewed with pumpkin, brown sugar and spice — debuted from the Delaware brewery back in 1994. This seasonal beer is typically released every September but usually sells out before Thanksgiving.
Expectations: I’m a big beer lover, but somehow have never tried a pumpkin brew. I assumed it would be heavy, like a stout, with a dark-color hue. While I’m a fan of most fruity beer, I draw the line at squash ... so my enjoyment expectations were low.
Reality: Punkin Ale pleasantly surprised me. The refreshing beer was light in both color and taste, making the 7% ABV brew extremely drinkable. (When it comes to heaviness, I’d say the Starbucks PSL resembled a stout more than this beer.) The ale’s flavors were balanced and blended so well that, at times, I even forgot Punkin Ale was pumpkin flavored — something I loved as a non-pumpkin spice purist.
Price: Varies by location. (I bought a six-pack for $16.99 at Krisp Beverages + Natural Foods in Golden Hill.)
Where to get it: Visit dogfish.com/brewery/fishfinder to find local markets, liquor stores and bottle shops that carry Punkin Ale.
Pumpkin score: 4.5 out of 5 pumpkins
Pumpkin Cheesecake Donut
I might not be much of a pumpkin spice person (don’t worry, I’m happily basic in other ways), but I am a donut person. When I saw that Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee offered a pumpkin cheesecake donut as one of its seasonal flavor offerings, I decided to try it and maybe I’d feel a little bit of the fall spirit, despite the still-hot San Diego temperatures.
Expectations: I like pumpkin pie, cheesecake and donuts, so this seemed like a slam dunk with regards to pumpkin flavors.
Reality: It’s a solid donut, with a pumpkin base, a house-made pumpkin glaze and a crumbly topping that reminded me of what you’d find on top of coffee cake, except it’s made with pecan graham cracker crumbs. A few stripes of a maple cheesecake frosting and voila, it’s a pumpkin cheesecake donut. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a few more drizzles of frosting, but all in all, the donut satisfies that pumpkin craving.
Where to get it: Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee, 3435 Del Mar Heights Road, Suite D7, Del Mar. (858) 847-2019; sidecardoughnuts.com.
Pumpkin rating/score: 4 out of 5 pumpkins
Halo-Halloween Boozy Ice Cream
Get into the spirit with a bit of a boozy kick with this seasonal boozy ice cream flavor from MetlBar Creamery & Cafe in North Park. Owner Jenna Elskamp is known for coming up with crazy ice cream concoctions spiked with alcohol, and this seasonal flavor is no different: Halo-Halloween is made with bourbon pumpkin pie, taro and ube rum and black coconut ice and is topped with Sweet Tart bats.
Expectations: Honestly, the flavor is so unique, I didn’t have any expectations, aside from expecting it to be purple, because of the ube.
Reality: I liked this ice cream so much, it scared me. Kidding, but for a Halloween-inspired treat for grown-ups, this ice cream hit the spot. The ube (which is a Filipino yam) and pumpkin pair nicely together. Even though there’s rum, I really couldn’t taste the alcohol (the ice cream contains 6-8% alcohol by volume). The Sweet Tart bats are cute for added decoration and because it’s not Halloween without some form of candy represented.
Price: $10 for a 12-ounce mini pint.
Where to get it: MetlBar Creamery & Café, 2835 University Avenue, North Park. (619) 915-5572; metlsd.com.
Pumpkin rating: 5 out of 5 pumpkins
Cat’s Paw Pumpkin Spice Cider
In late September, North Park’s restaurant and cidery Bivouac Ciderworks released its limited-edition Cat’s Paw pumpkin spice cider. Available in 16 oz. cans, the seasonal cider has 6% ABV and contains notes of pumpkin and pear.
Expectations: Not gonna lie, I had low expectations for a pumpkin spice cider. I thought it would be far too tart and sweet for my liking, as ciders usually are for me.
Reality: I was blown away by this cider. I almost braced myself before trying it, but upon first sip, where I expected to be overwhelmed with tanginess, I was surprised to find this cider went down smooth, without any unpleasant aftertaste. It’s subtle and refreshing, without any overpowering notes. The pumpkin and spice flavors are there, they’re just not in your face.
Price: $18-20 for a four-pack of 16 oz. cans.
Where to get it: Bivouac Ciderworks, 3986 30th Street, North Park, (619) 725-0844, bivouaccider.com; or at various local retailers like Lazy Acres, Whole Foods and Barons Market.
Pumpkin rating: 5 out of 5 pumpkins
Pumpkin Spice Cheerios
Sometimes you want a quick fix of pumpkin (or maybe just me?) without having to leave the house or make a special trip to Trader Joe’s. Hence the perfectly reasonable purchase of Pumpkin Spice Cheerios.
Expectations: How could this be bad? It’s pumpkin, it’s Cheerios and maybe it will leave you with pumpkin milk at the end.
Reality: Pumpkin Cheerios are not the best. There’s an unnatural taste to it, like people in a lab tried to capture the coziness of pumpkin spice but couldn’t translate it on the tiny cereal pieces. The leftover milk is more cinnamon than pumpkin. If you’re really desperate it will satisfy a pumpkin spice craving, but not enough to make you forget the real thing. As a topping, though, the pumpkin-flavored Cheerios is surprisingly great on yogurt parfaits or ice cream.
Price: Prices vary from $3 to $5 a box.
Where to get it: You can find Pumpkin Spice Cheerios at Target, Vons and Amazon.
Pumpkin rating: 1 out of 5 pumpkins
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.