The pumpkin spice latte (PSL to its fans) has a reputation as an unserious drink. It’s not coffee, goes the sneering assessment, but a cup of sugary milk, ideal for those who love seasons but hate the taste of coffee. They’re the province of chains like Starbucks, Peet’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, not the Bay Area’s many third wave coffee shops, places that emphasize high quality coffee that’s usually a light roast, valued for its subtle tasting notes and best enjoyed without milk or sugar.
But some Bay Area coffee shops, like Andytown Coffee Roasters, Artís Coffee and Spruce Cafe, don’t think there has to be a division between those who appreciate high-end coffee and those who appreciate a sweet seasonal drink. These cafes offer the same drinks that Starbucks popularized, but with fresher ingredients and a lot less sugar.
“While we are normally coffee purists, we make some exceptions for the holidays. (We are not grinches, after all!)” Andytown Coffee Roasters cofounder Lauren Crabbe wrote in an email. The San Francisco roastery offered their version of a pumpkin spice latte at a one-off event in October, using spices from nearby Oaktown Spice Shop. They’re also making peppermint mochas for their upcoming “Winter Wonderland-ytown” event, where their goal is to produce something that’s “more flavor-driven than sweet,” Crabbe wrote.
At Artís Coffee in Berkeley, they offer a pumpkin spice latte and peppermint mocha every holiday season. “We’re not going to be the chef with his nose in the air that scoffs at a customer if they put some salt on their food,” said Walter Margerison, the company’s director of production. “Our customer appreciation is full spectrum. Not everyone can drink black coffee, whether it's because they haven't learned to appreciate it or they just genuinely don’t like it. It’s not our place to judge, and the same goes for these flavored beverages.”
When Artís first opened, they didn’t plan on offering seasonal drinks. They wanted to emphasize their coffee, which they source themselves from a variety of sustainable, ethically-run farms and roast in front of customers at their cafe to ensure they’re getting the freshest product. But when they hired Margerison, he urged them to reconsider. He pointed to the cultish devotion around Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte: the countdown to the day it arrives in store and the resulting flurry of social media excitement when fans finally get their hands on the drink (according to Starbucks, fans send out an average of 3,000 tweets per day about the drink during fall.) Why couldn’t Artis offer the drink and other seasonal drinks, but create their own, better take on them, using fresh ingredients?