Starbucks vs. Peet's: Which is the Best Pumpkin Spice Latte?

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[Photographs: Adam Lindsley, unless otherwise noted]

There is a certain contingent of people who, like those individuals ready to pounce outside drugstores and supermarkets the instant Cadbury Eggs hit the shelves in the weeks preceding Easter, wait patiently year-round for the autumnal arrival of the pumpkin spiced drinks at coffee houses across the nation. These established lovers of seasonal sips already have their favorites, but for those who don't often order these kinds of drinks, a throwdown is in order! Which pumpkin latte is best?

For this comparison, I visited the two largest coffee house chains near me: Starbucks and Peet's Coffee & Tea. With each company hosting a location literally across the street from each other here in Portland, it was a cinch to order both beverages minutes apart and taste them at their freshest. I expected a few differences between the two lattes, but nothing drastic. What I discovered was a surprisingly vast disparity between the two.

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

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A PhD candidate at the University of Washington recently discovered that, in the United States, you can never be more than 170 miles from the nearest Starbucks. Crazy, right? So our question is: is the pumpkin spice latte worth the trip?

Let's do this wine-tasting style, starting with the aroma. Right off the bat there was a strong scent of cinnamon coming off the Starbucks latte, which makes sense given how much spice was sprinkled on top. If there was any hint of roasty espresso wafting from the drink, I could not detect it.

You'd typically find a layer of foamed milk crowning your latte, but that wasn't the case in this instance. Instead, there was a mound of whipped cream that either crushed the foam or concealed the fact that it never existed in the first place. Either way, the cream is an extra layer of sweetness that comes on the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte by default, but you can request to have it omitted.

As for the body of the latte itself, the bite of the espresso comes through strongest, hitting the palate with an unmistakable bitterness. If you were worried that there wasn't any coffee in this drink, don't. It's there. But the espresso flavor is followed by some seriously sweet pumpkin spice syrup, a proprietary blend that's heavy on the sugar and condensed milk. In my opinion, the harsh espresso and candylike syrup clashed rather than gelled.

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After the whipped cream was consumed and the drink had time to sit, it was possible to see the slightly disturbing orange color of the latte, no doubt the result of the annatto in the pumpkin syrup. An oily sheen also settled over the surface of the liquid. Neither aspect seems to bother the drink's fans much: apparently there is such high demand for the Pumpkin Spice Latte that many Starbucks locations can't replenish their supplies quickly enough.

Peet's Pumpkin Latte

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While its reach is currently relegated to California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Illinois, and Massachusetts, Peet's has expanded rapidly in the past decade, particularly with smaller stations located inside groceries stores. Chances are, if there's not a Peet's near you now, there will be in the next 5 years.

Peet's Pumpkin Latte immediately distinguishes itself visually from its Starbucks brethren with a lack of whipped cream or ground cinnamon (although they do offer a nutmeg grinder at the counter). Instead, the drink is topped with the more traditional layer of foamed milk. But the scent is intensely vanilla laced, overshadowing the fragrance of the espresso.

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Peet's uses the Pumpkin Spice syrup from Monin to provide pumpkin flavor to the drink. The resulting latte has strong vanilla undertones, accompanied by a mild nutmeg presence. The bitterness of the coffee is still detectable, but it absolutely takes a backseat to the vanilla. What little "pumpkin" flavors are there don't exactly push and shove their way to the front, but at least the combination of flavors ends harmoniously.

In a word, Peet's Pumpkin Latte can best be described as mild. Mild overall pumpkin body, mild sweetness, and mild coffee flavors.

Which Is Your Pick?

The Pumpkin Lattes at Starbucks and Peet's come from two totally different places, and which one you'll prefer depends entirely on your palate. If you prefer stronger coffee flavors, then the Starbucks version is absolutely the one for you, although you'll have to contend with equally powerful hits of sugar (and Starbucks' notoriously bitter roast). If you like a mellower coffee experience but still want those hints of pumpkin pie, go for the one at Peet's. The choice is yours.

About the author: Adam Lindsley is a Pacific Northwest-based writer, musician, and the author of the pizza blog, This Is Pizza. You can follow him at @ThisIsPizza on Twitter. He is currently on a serious weizenbock kick, so if you have a particular favorite, be sure to let him know.

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