After 20 years, the pumpkin spice latte is still a pop culture icon and figurehead of the autumn season.
Many things signify autumn — leaves turning brown, temperatures dropping and days getting darker. The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, which is usually released at the beginning of September, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. By far Starbucks’ most recognisable coffee flavour, the drink has become an icon of the autumn season.
Autumn itself is a much-loved time of year, evoking feelings of comfort and nostalgia as we wrap up warm for the back-to-school season. The craze around autumn and pumpkin spice lattes has inspired memes, fashion aesthetics and plenty of jumpers and homeware with “autumn vibes” printed on it. But how did a latte become this popular?
Peter Dukes, who led the Starbucks espresso beverage team in 2003, told Starbucks Stories & News: “we probably had at least a hundred ideas up on the wall. And once we got those ideas, we started to whittle away at them and came down to a list of about 20 different flavors including chocolate and caramel – the most popular flavors to pair with coffee – and there was orange and cinnamon … and there was pumpkin there as well.”
That autumn was the first time pumpkin spice lattes were tested in stores, to much success. Dukes continued: “I remember calling store managers on the phone to see how the new beverage was doing, and we could hear the excitement in their voices.” By 2004, the pumpkin spice latte was available across the USA and Canada and has come back every year since then.
Perhaps this is where the love of autumn in mainstream culture began, as it coincided with the show Gilmore Girls at the height of its popularity. Gilmore Girls is set in the fictional town of Stars Hollow — a town which seems to be in perpetual autumn as everyone dresses in winter clothes and clutches steaming coffee cups.
The show evokes warm, fuzzy feelings for viewers and has gained an even bigger audience since being added to Netflix, becoming a nostalgic show to watch every autumn season.
In 2009, the hilarious essay “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” by Colin Nissan gained millions of views in only a couple of days. Nissan may have inadvertently contributed to the mainstream love of autumn by parodying it, as the essay still goes viral every year and remains one of the most read pieces on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
While the essay may have been mocking people with an obsession with autumnal crafts and decor, many can relate to: “all I plan to do is to throw on a flannel shirt, some tattered overalls, and a floppy fucking hat and stand in the middle of a cornfield for a few days.”
This level of popularity was quite a feat in the early days of the internet, and as social media became more widely used, pumpkin spice lattes took over as the figurehead of all things autumn.
By the 2010s, pumpkin spice lattes received even more notoriety as they became a trend online. The meme ‘basic bitch’ refers to a woman who has predictable and mainstream interests.
Due to Starbucks being so popular at the time, loving pumpkin spice lattes was included in that definition. The pumpkin spice latte even has its own Know Your Meme page, which calls it “a stereotypical drink consumed by ‘basic’ white women.”
The year 2013 marked the ten-year anniversary of the drink, which coincided with the rise of its association with ‘basic’-ness. It was so popular that anything from salmon to cat litter was pumpkin spice flavoured, although this created a negative response from people who were sick of hearing about it.
The ‘basic bitch’ caricature — a white woman who wears leggings and Ugg boots, never seen without a Starbucks in hand — became a misogynistic association with the brand.
Starbucks’ ubiquity became a serious problem, so to try and remove itself from the ‘basic’ stereotype, gourmet nitro cold brew was introduced in 2016 to appeal to coffee snobs and gain back the reputation of being serious about coffee. Around the same time, the ‘basic bitch’ meme was also receiving criticism for being sexist.
Women began to reclaim being a ‘basic bitch’. Daisy Buchanan wrote for The Guardian: “dismissing all cultural feminine signifiers might look like a feminist act, but it’s rude. We shouldn’t make assumptions about a woman’s interests and habits based on her gender.” The idea that the term was misogynistic became more widespread.
Writer Allison Floyd tweeted: “Calling a woman a basic bitch is thinly-veiled misogyny. Let women like what they like. If it’s ‘stereotypical,’ oh well. No one is calling you a Basic Bro for religiously doing Fantasy Football every year or thinking Arrested Development is a masterpiece.” The term started to be reclaimed, and its association with pumpkin spice lattes began to fade.
Today, feelings around the pumpkin spice latte are still very mixed. While some people still remember the ‘basic bitch’ meme, others choose not to care and proudly enjoy ‘basic’ things.
Gabi, a pumpkin spice latte cynic, told me: “I think they’re massively overrated and that they’re associated with ‘basic bitch’ young teens who are trying to be cool and trendy.”
Rysia, a lover of the drink, said: “I love the flavour and I don’t care about a basic bitch moment, let me have my autumn treat while it’s cold outside.” As the ‘basic’ insult has been reclaimed to be used in a more affectionate way, it’s more accepted to embrace being basic and love mainstream things.
Charlotte felt the same way, commenting: “I am ready to embrace the pumpkin spice latte, I’m already buying Uggs and I am happy.”
Similarly, Eve is also a fan: “I love pumpkin spice lattes despite how basic they are.” However, she also noted: “it’s a very successful marketing ploy to get people to buy more for this random time of year. That being said, it is my favourite time of year.”
It seems that people may be more wary of marketing tactics from big companies in the digital age, as we are used to seeing advertising much more often.
Daniel feels more cynical about it: “It’s limited edition. Everyone needs to come and get one every day now because you can only get it at this time. It’s a marketing ploy; I just associate it with capitalism.”
After the pumpkin spice latte reached the height of its craze, consumers may be thinking more critically about how much these marketing campaigns can influence them.
The arrival of autumn now means the arrival of a new, more wholesome meme. ‘Christian Girl Autumn’ encompasses everything people love about autumn — posing in front of brown leaves, pumpkins, knitwear and Ugg boots. However, instead of making fun of people who enjoy these things, this meme celebrates them.
The original version, posted in 2019, featured pictures of influencer Caitlin Covington as the poster girl of all things autumn. At first, some thought she may be a stereotypical bigoted Christian or vapid influencer, but luckily Covington saw the humour in the post.
She told Insider: “I’m a daughter, friend, wife, and an expecting mother. I’m a gay rights and Black Lives Matter supporter, and I think all people should be accepted for who they are.”
Covington even went on to donate $500 (£409) to the GoFundMe of the original creator of the meme, who was fundraising to afford gender affirming surgery. With this uplifting interaction, it seems more acceptable to unapologetically love autumn.
Natasha, who has now deleted the account she tweeted the original meme from, told Insider: “I wasn’t expecting that much, and I immediately felt so grateful she had even shared the post on her platform.”
The pumpkin spice latte has firmly placed itself in the cultural zeitgeist and after 20 years it is inescapable during the autumn season. Whether you don’t see the hype or you’re proud to be ‘basic’, it is undeniable that it has become bigger than a humble coffee.
Featured image by Molly Wilson