Pumpkin spice and everything nice

Comparing fall’s signature drink from local coffee shops


Ingrid Smith

The Shield tracks down the best pumpkin spice latte in Austin, Texas.

Ingrid Smith, co-online managing editor and co-news editor

Every year I count down the days until I can wrap my hands around a hot pumpkin spice latte and let the delicious flavors of fall settle on my tongue. Despite the year-long Texas heat, driving to the nearest Starbucks and indulging in the warm, sugary sensation is my favorite fall ritual.

According to The Guardian, Starbucks has sold more than 600 million pumpkin spice lattes since the drink debuted in 2003. The famous drink is made from espresso and steamed milk (the usual components of a latte), and it contains a “pumpkin pie topping” made of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Surprisingly, the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte did not contain any pumpkin until 2015, when it was reformulated to include a “pumpkin pie sauce” made partly from pumpkin puree.

Despite the year-long Texas heat, driving to the nearest Starbucks and indulging in the warm, sugary sensation is my favorite fall ritual.

Former Starbucks employee junior Devin Neal said that customers asked for pumpkin spice lattes before fall drinks even appeared on the menu.

“I’ve made around 10 pumpkin spice lattes, but we were trained extensively with it due to it being one of the main sellers during the holiday seasons,” Neal said. “It was also something we as employees would make in our free time. The drink itself is honestly really simple as most of our lattes are made exactly the same way. Once you get the timing and sequencing of the hot bar drinks, making lattes, especially the pumpkin spice latte, gets pretty easy yet very repetitive when everyone that comes in is asking for one.”

But according to Neal, local coffee shops do pumpkin-themed lattes better.

“I think it’s a misconception that Starbucks is this hip, healthy place to get well-crafted and tasty drinks. While our drinks are very tasty, the syrup used really isn’t the healthiest. It was very common for most of my coworkers both at my location and other locations I worked at to talk about how other local coffee shops do things a bit better, lattes especially. I would really recommend visiting a more local coffee shop. I feel like you’ll really taste the difference due to healthier choices for adding flavor and better choices of coffee beans used.”

Of course, die-hard Starbucks pumpkin spice latte fans may disagree. And no matter the coffee shop, customers certainly aren’t choosing the sugary drinks for their health benefits.

As I sipped on my first Starbucks pumpkin spice latte of the year, having looked forward to it for months, I felt instant disappointment. It tasted like chemicals, with no cinnamon or nutmeg deliciousness to be found. But I wasn’t about to let fall slip away and leave my pumpkin spice addiction in the past. Knowing that virtually every coffee shop in America sells something pumpkin spice-related as jack-o’-lanterns sit on porches and pumpkin pies arrive on the Thanksgiving table, I ventured to my favorite local coffee shops on a mission to find the best pumpkin spice latte in Austin. In order to judge the lattes fairly, I created a scoring guide.

I would really recommend visiting a more local coffee shop. I feel like you’ll really taste the difference due to healthier choices for adding flavor and better choices of coffee beans used.

— junior and former Starbucks employee Devin Neal

Each drink could earn up to two points in the five categories I deemed most important to creating the pumpkin spice latte of my dreams. First on the list was flavor balance. A tasty latte relies upon a good balance between creamy flavors and coffee flavors. Next up was syrup quality. Did the latte taste like chemicals or was the syrup a velvety blend of pumpkin spice and everything nice? Third came the spices. Considering that the drink contains barely any pumpkin, the mixture of spices is essential to making the latte taste like fall. Fourth on the list was the presentation. Being used to the glorious whipped cream creations Starbucks tops its pumpkin spice lattes with, I expected the presentation to be just as amazing as the taste. Last but certainly not least, I took into consideration how much the lattes warmed my heart. Would the competing coffees transport me to the cozy fall landscape of a “Gilmore Girls” episode? Would they fill me with the angsty autumnal vibes of a Taylor Swift song?

Seven pumpkin spice lattes and one pumpkin pie milkshake later, I am a pumpkin spice latte connoisseur. Paying out of my own pocket, I sampled a range of lattes from the world’s most famous coffee chain to the most hipster local cafe I could think of. My ranking changed numerous times as I continued my experiment and developed my pumpkin palate. In the end, there was one clear winner, one clear loser, and a pumpkin patch of average lattes. To discover the best pumpkin spice latte in Austin, scroll over the flip cards below.

Starbucks- 5/10
An undeniable classic, top-notch presentation, has a strong chemical taste, didn't live up to my memory. I only took a few sips of the latte before it ended up in the trash can, inspiring my mission to find the best pumpkin spice latte in Austin.
"Pumpkin Spice Latte"
Jo's Coffee- 10/10
As I tasted the delicious syrup and blissful balance of spices, I knew I had found the pumpkin spice latte of my dreams. It is perfectly sugary and it tastes better than any pumpkin pie I've ever had. I couldn't put it down and have even returned and bought two more.
"Pumpkin Pie Latte"
Monkey Nest Coffee- 3/10
To my displeasure, I discovered a pumpkin spice latte that was worse than the Starbucks classic. It tasted only of warm milk with barely any trace of spice and no fall flavor. This latte was extremely underwhelming and didn't compare to Monkey Nest's other much more enjoyable drinks.
"Pumpkin Pie Latte"
Kick Butt Coffee- 6/10
This pumpkin spice latte was extremely average. It had a nice coffee base but was overly creamy. However, it contained stronger spices than any of the other lattes I tried. In a way, it tasted like drinking a fall-scented candle. I have to award it points, though, for the adorable "pumpkin spice lover" sleeve and beautiful whipped cream presentation.
"Pumpkin Spice Latte"
Genuine Joe Coffeehouse- 9/10
This latte was sugary and scrumptious. While the hipster coffeehouse is small and never without a line, I am always confident that the drink I order will be delicious. The magic of this (off-the-menu) latte came from the coffee-to-milk balance. While the ordering process was slightly inconvenient, the drink was so delicious that I would absolutely order it again.
"Latte With Pumpkin Pie Syrup"
Summer Moon Coffee- 6/10
This latte was delicious but overdone. Summer Moon took a different approach to the pumpkin spice latte as the drink tasted strongly of pure cinnamon. It contained very heavy milk which was slightly overwhelming. However, it quickly got me into the fall spirit.
"Autumn Moon Latte"
Quack's 43rd Street Bakery-8/10
This latte was a tasty treat from my favorite bakery. It was comforting, got me in my fall feels and made the breezy November morning even better. The blend of flavors was velvety smooth and the latte paired wonderfully with my cinnamon roll. While the pumpkin spice latte was very simple, drinking it was a very enjoyable experience.
"Pumpkin Spice Latte"
P. Terry's Burger Stand- 6/10
Right down the road from McCallum, P. Terry's Burger Stand has named the "Pumpkin Pie Milkshake" its November shake of the month. Still on my pumpkin spice craze, I gave the shake a try. While it was nothing particularly special, the shake was fun to drink and it put a smile on my face. If you are craving some cold pumpkin spice, give this shake a shot.
"Pumpkin Pie Milkshake"