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[Photographs: Erin Meister]

We're in what I like to think of as latte limbo: the period after Halloween but before Thanksgiving when you're not done with the pumpkin-spice thing, but suddenly everywhere you turn they're rolling out the gingerbread and the peppermint twist.

Let's keep it pumpkiny for a second with a round-up of three big names' caffeinated tribute to that humble-yet-perfect gourd: Whole Foods, Dunkin' Donuts, and Starbucks. When approaching this Great Pumpkin Latte Tasting, we had to ask ourselves, what's more important: pumpkin flavor, or pumpkin spice flavor? It might not seem like it's asking too much for a drink with both "pumpkin" and "spice" in the name to taste like, well, both. But after tasting these three versions, it does seem too much to ask, which is really a crying shame.

Whole Foods

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Whole Foods' version was a little modest on the coffee flavor and lacked anything remotely pumpkiny, but was very nutmeg-forward and had a sweet, caramel-like coating on the tongue. The aftertaste was superlong and somewhat cloying, but the flavor overall was really aided by the nutmeg. A little more cinnamon would probably balance out the cup pretty nicely, though the drink overall was pretty enjoyable and very autumnal.

In the meantime, am I the only person who always forgets that most Whole Foods have a cafe in the bulk-coffee section? All this time I could be warming my paws on an Americano while perusing the frozen vegetables. Sigh.

Dunkin' Donuts

20101115dunkinpumpkin250.jpgSurprisingly, Dunkin' Donuts' offering had a much more recognizably "coffee" taste to it, though whatever else in there that's supposedly making it a pumpkin-flavored drink is hard to discern. Sweet like butterscotch, it has more of a vanilla or hazelnut sort of warmth to it, and almost no detectable spice at all—it almost tastes like the kind of push-button "French vanilla cappuccino" I grew up on haunting the aisles of Wawa as a New Jersey teenager.

Starbucks

20101115sbuxpumpkin250.jpg"It's seriously awesome," the barista at Starbucks assured me. "It's totally the thing that turned me on to espresso." Well, that's really nice and everything, but it's hard to see how that's possible, as the Green Mermaid's pumpkin-spice latte has the least coffee flavor of any coffee drink I've ever had in my entire life. (Including the Wawa special mentioned above.)

I know there's espresso in there, because I saw our man put it in the cup. But underneath a cap of (actually pretty decently textured and generously "spiced" from a handy shaker from the baristas' arsenal) white foam, there lurked an orange (yes, actually orange) drink that tasted almost exactly like taking a sip of Libby's canned pumpkin mixed with sweetened-condensed milk and not much else. Basically it's a drinkable version of not-yet-cooked pumpkin pie filling.

The Winner?

While I don't know if I'd echo my man's "seriously awesome," Starbucks' latte was the most pleasant (and definitely very drinkable) of the three—maybe solely because I was desperately in search of that last grasp of pumpkin before I give in and go gingerbread.

Is there a better, more balanced pumpkin-spice latte out there, readers, or do I need to come up with my own recipe? Do tell.

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook. Her latest project is Eat This Neighborhood, wherein she attempts to eat at least one thing at every single restaurant in the vicinity of her Chelsea apartment.

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