Gourmet Coffee Brands Embrace the Pumpkin Spice Latte. What’s Next?

Halloween decorations are in the stores which can only mean one thing – Pumpkin Spice Lattes are here.  Like it or not, it’s become a staple on the menus of most gourmet coffee brands for the past 10 years.  But innovations in coffee drinks that we take for granted go back much further than that.

The first specialty beverages that I created 30 years ago, before entering the world of single serve coffee, were mochas and hot cocoa using high quality chocolate and natural flavors and ingredients.  I have always loved the combination of chocolate and coffee.  Then caramel and white chocolate flavors were added and these drinks quickly became permanent menu items in cafes across the country.

As the weather cools and hot beverage sales increase, new drinks were needed to replace cold brew and iced coffee on coffee shop menus.  Enter the Chai latte.  Or more accurately the Americanized version of the Indian spiced tea.

An Old Idea Made New Again

The original is black tea with milk and a spice blend including, among others, ginger, anise, pepper, cinnamon and cardamom.  And, because we like our beverages sweet, sugar.  What helped make Chai a permanent menu addition was that it could be served by itself hot, cold, iced, and frozen, or combined with espresso.  This enabled operators to profit from year-round sales and customers could enjoy a different flavor with the changing seasons.

The chai express picked up steam (pun intended), and soon the blender was introduced behind the coffee counter.  Suddenly frozen drinks – with and without coffee – were everywhere.  Variations on the French word frappe were used to describe frozen cappuccino treats served in extra large plastic cups; everyone is familiar with the portmanteau Frappaccino.  Fruit smoothies and other slushy beverages were added and became year-round offerings.

For years coffee was consumed black.  Milk or cream was splashed on top.  Lattes and cappuccinos were a precise ratio of espresso to steamed and foamed milk.  Originally only regular milk was used but in an age of mass customization customers soon asked for variations.

What Happened to Good Old Whole Milk?

Low-fat and non-fat milks were added along with lactose free milks variants.  Soy milk was introduced as a non-dairy option for consumers seeking a way to reduce the acidity and tang of the coffee in their cup.  Walking into cafés today it is possible to order a latte with regular milk, as well as non-fat, lactose-free, soy, almond, hazelnut, oat, or macadamia milks.  In some cafes the non-dairy variants are more popular than traditional milk.

Retailers were soon awash in milk, and many believed that their single-minded focus on the quality of the coffee beans they were sourcing, roasting, grinding, and serving in drinks was being drowned by a sea of milk foam.  So they turned their attention back to black.  Offering freshly made pour over coffees, some refused to add milk or sugar, hoping the consumer would enjoy the taste of the unadorned coffee and appreciate the dedication to their craft of coffee.  The idea of using ultra-premium coffee beans offered in a more expensive drink that was made one cup at a time.  This trend has also sustained itself, and it is possible to find unique tasting coffees made on demand in many newer, hipper establishments.

Today’s menu across gourmet coffee brands includes choices for drinks that are both traditional and new.  Limited time offers appear seasonally like Pumpkin Spice Lattes alongside mochas and chai lattes.  I’m a traditionalist, so drinking a mocha is as exotic as I get when I order a drink.  But every time I’m in a café I wonder what the next featured specialty drink will be.  And will it be just a limited time offer, or will it remain on the menu and become a new classic?