Years ago, the signs of autumn's arrival were geese flying south, leaves changing color, and a chill in the air. If you were a foodie, all you had to look forward to was the release of that year's Beaujolais Nouveau a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. None of these came soon enough for marketing executives. Now, the signal of the changing season is when seemingly every foodstuff in the country is infused with pumpkin spice.
There's a huge autumnal rumble brewing between two of the biggest coffee purveyors in the country. Some clown thinks that they have what it takes to take on the original pumpkin spice latte titan. Can the Golden Arches capture any of the Starbucks magic? There's only one way to find out.
In This Corner: Starbucks, locations absolutely everywhere
The Setup: The green Siren introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte ten years ago. In so doing, they unwittingly unleashed a tsunami of pumpkin spice everything.
The Good: You know the drill by now. It's rich, it's lightly sweet, the milk is hand-steamed, and a swirl of whipped cream on top is nicely indulgent.
The Bad: For being a pumpkin spice latte, I feel like there isn't much pumpkin spice or coffee flavor going on here. This is easily remedied by adding an extra shot of espresso and an extra pump of pumpkin sauce (Does that sound dirty to anyone else, or is it just me?), but that brings the already high price over five bucks for the 12-ounce size.
The Low Blow: Part of what adds richness to the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte is some condensed milk in the pumpkin sauce. Even if you get your Pumpkin Spice Latte with soy, it's still going to have dairy. Sorry, vegans.
And In This Corner: McDonald's, locations also absolutely everywhere
The Setup: McDonald's introduced McCafé espresso drinks several years ago. Considering the rampant popularity of Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte, it's almost a surprise that McDonald's took this long to create a copycat version.
The Good: McDonald's certainly wins on price, undercutting Starbucks by about $1.50 no matter the size. It's a little sweeter (but not too sweet), and the spice flavor has more prominence.
The Bad: Since McDonald's milk frother is fully automatic, the steamed milk doesn't get the same silky texture as at Starbucks. Also, I noticed a bitter metallic off-flavor in the aftertaste.
The Low Blow: That extra sweetness and metallic taste go hand-in-hand. It turns out that McDonald's adds sucralose (aka Splenda) to their syrup. Vegans are out of luck again; McDonald's doesn't stock soy milk in the first place. I feel like this point is largely moot, as McDonald's doesn't even try to cater to vegetarians or vegans in the first place.
And The Winner Is... Honestly folks, head to your favorite local coffee house that's jumped on the pumpkin spice latte bandwagon. It's almost certainly going to be a better product than either big shot, the price is going to be competitive with (if not outright better than) Starbucks, and you get the good feeling of keeping your dollars local.
That said, this battle is about the big boys because there are still places where good local coffee is hard to find. Starbucks wins hands down, still the reigning super heavyweight champion of the pumpkin spice latte. The biggest reason McDonald's didn't stand a chance was their sneaky use of sucralose, which figuratively and literally left a bad taste in my mouth. Starbucks may be significantly more expensive, but the extra care in preparation made for a better product, lack of a vegan option be damned.