Review: Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Coffee

Oct 10

When I spotted Pumpkin Spice coffee at Trader Joe’s, I knew I had to give it a try. The ingredients included orange peel, and orange is a big favorite of mine, so I had high hopes.

Now, a warning about flavored coffee beans: adding flavor to ground beans is often a way to try to mask substandard coffee. And coffee that’s sold pre-ground, as this is, may not be at the peak of its freshness. I don’t grind my beans fresh at home like I should, but at least I have an idea how long ago they were ground. When you buy a canister of ground beans, all bets are off.

Ponder the alluring packaging.

Ponder the alluring packaging.

When I opened the canister, the smell was quite striking. Unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way. I expected to smell pumpkin pie spices, or possibly orange peel. What I actually smelled was … honestly, I don’t know. It seemed almost chemical. It certainly didn’t smell like any ingredient I would expect in pumpkin spice coffee.

I brewed this coffee the same way I brew my regular morning coffee — as a cold brew. It’s too fine a grind for a French press filter, so I had to strain the grounds out manually, but that’s no big deal. I tried brewing it with and without the brown sugar included in my usual cold brew, so I’d have a good basis for comparison.

This coffee is definitely flavored. But the flavor doesn’t seem like any other pumpkin spice product I’ve tried. If you’re brewing this hoping to get something similar to a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, you will be disappointed. I couldn’t really identify any of the traditional spices, nor anything in the ingredients list. It just has a vague “some kind of spices” flavor.

As for the coffee beans themselves, I’m not impressed. But then, I have never been a fan of Trader Joe’s coffee. It may be a quality thing or it may be a personal preference. I have tried some coffees of theirs that were pretty decent (the Breakfast Blend comes to mind). But compared to the cold-brewed Verona I have every morning, this stuff was just not as good. A little bitter, a little burnt — and yes, I know that’s an odd thing to say in comparison to a Starbucks dark roast! — and just underwhelming.

If you like Trader Joe’s coffee, you may enjoy this more than I did. But don’t expect it to have a classic pumpkin spice flavor.

 

  • What: Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Coffee
  • Where: Trader Joe’s grocery stores
  • Verdict: Underwhelming coffee, with a not-very-pumpkin-spice-like flavor. But it may be a decent brew for fans of other coffees from Trader Joe’s.

 

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Review: Starbucks VIA Pumpkin Spice Latte

Oct 03

Packet is not for consumption.

Packet is not for consumption.

It’s that time of year again — the time for pumpkin spice everything. Starbucks, the traditional harbinger of fall with its Pumpkin Spice Latte, has taken the opportunity to also expand their VIA instant latte line with a pumpkin spice variety. Since I’ve already reviewed the real PSL, today I’m reviewing the instant version.

First of all, a standard reminder: pumpkin spice does not mean there’s pumpkin in it. Pumpkin spice means the spices you’d put in a pumpkin pie. We’re just too lazy to say pumpkin pie spice.

Like other VIA instant lattes, this one comes in a large single-serving packet, sold in packs of four. The ingredients include the dreaded, vague “natural flavors”, but since it’s instant coffee I don’t really expect any different. You pour the powder into a mug, add boiling water (the instructions say 8 ounces but I say however much it takes to fill your mug) and stir. Bam! Instant pumpkin spice latte.

Your happy sun mug may vary.

Your happy sun mug may vary.

Like the VIA vanilla latte, this is not as good as the “real thing”, made with actual espresso, non-powdered steamed milk, and syrup from a bottle. The pumpkin spice flavor is similar, and if you’re jonesing for pumpkin spice Starbucks and can’t leave the house it would probably tide you over. Also like the VIA vanilla latte, however, the overall taste is still reminiscent of the kind of instant flavored cream/coffee blends you can get in the grocery store, for a considerably higher price.

It’s not a bad drink, and I’ll certainly finish all four packets in the box I bought. And as far as an instant beverage, it’s decent. However, if you need a just-add-water drink that’s much heavier on the pumpkin spice and lighter on the instant taste, you may be better off with the Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Chai. It’s cheaper per drink and in my opinion much more flavorful.

 

  • What: Starbucks VIA Pumpkin Spice Latte
  • Where: Starbucks locations and possibly some grocery stores
  • Verdict: Not bad, but you can probably find something better for cheaper.

 

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Pumpkin Spice News

Aug 22

As you may have read on the internet — especially if you’re as coffee-obsessed as I am — the Pumpkin Spice Latte is coming back early this year. Here’s the dates: Official launch is September 2nd. However, through a series of “challenges” on social media, people can “unlock” the PSL at their local Starbucks as early as August 25.

The PSL is traditionally a fall drink, which has some people crying foul at the early release. After all, it’s still August and already we have Halloween candy going on sale, and even some Christmas merch appearing in stores. The tendency in retail is to draw out lucrative seasonal sales as long as possible in the hopes of drawing in more money.

On the flip side, however, drinks that evoke a certain season might reasonably be marketed during a time when people are preparing for that season. Like the first turning of the leaves (if you live in a place where leaves turn, which I don’t), the PSL could be considered as much a sign that fall is coming, as a sign that fall is actually hear. I think that’s the feeling that Starbucks is trying to get in on — a seasonal drink as a sign that the season is coming soon.

Last year, Starbucks realized the social media potential of this drink and pushed it hard on their Twitter account. This year they’re going even further, with a Twitter account specifically for the drink itself (@theRealPSL). The idea is that you follow this Twitter account, complete certain challenges by replying to it — today’s challenge was to find an ingredient on the Starbucks Instagram account — and eventually learn a “passcode” that you give at your local Starbucks to “unlock” the drink, allowing them to start selling it early.

Why go through all this just to sell a drink? Well, “social media engagement” is a big buzzword right now and Starbucks has jumped aboard that train with both feet. It can be an effective and inexpensive way to build buzz about a product, as well as getting immediate feedback on how well the campaign is going. And it’s working: mainstream media outlets are carrying the story. The return of a seasonal drink at a coffee restaurant is now “news”. You can buy billboards and TV ads, but here with a few minutes of typing every day they’ve gotten a crazy amount of publicity.

Of course, it’s a little hypocritical for me to scrutinize their methods. After all, here I am, writing about both the drink and the social media campaign. Just like I wrote with excitement about the coming of the Fizzio sodas and the new shaken teas (all five of those reviews are still among the highest-viewed pages on this site). So if it’s a problem, I’m part of the problem. If it’s a trend, I’m part of the trend. In my defense, I try to be as informational as I can.

Will I be trying to get my Starbucks to sell the Pumpkin Spice Latte early? Probably, I love those things.

For last year’s review of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, click here.
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Review: Fizzio Spiced Root Beer (Starbucks)

Jun 24

After all the speculation, the day is finally here — the summer drinks have arrived at Starbucks, and that means the fancy new carbonation machines have been fired up and the “handcrafted sodas” are available. I hit up my local Starbucks to taste all three of them. What can I say, I’m a giver.

A tall Spiced Root Beer.

A tall Spiced Root Beer.

The soda that caused the most anticipation among my friends is the Spiced Root Beer. So naturally, that’s the soda I tackled first. Made from concentrate and carbonated in the new machine, this drink is served nice and cold, and as bubbly as a regular fountain soda.

This is no regular fountain soda, though. It’s one of the sweetest root beers I’ve tasted in my long years of beverage addiction, and the “spiced” part definitely adds to the flavor. Aside from the usual spices in root beer, this one has what tastes like cloves and maybe some cinnamon or cardamom. It’s not as heavily spiced as the chai or Vanilla Spice Latte, but it’s definitely different from a regular root beer.

These sodas are made without high fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors, and calorie-wise they’re not too bad. You can get them from a tall (80 calories) to a trenta (210 calories) and since they’re being heavily promoted right now you can probably find coupons or “happy hours” to get them pretty cheaply. Depending on your taste in root beer, this one might be a little overly sweet for you, but it’s a great addition to the menu for people who’re not in the mood for coffee or tea.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Fizzio Spiced Root Beer
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: Just the size
  • Verdict: A sweet, moderately spiced root beer that really hits the spot.

Check out all three Fizzio sodas:

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Review: Pumpkin Spice Latte (Starbucks)

Sep 15

 

Many seasonal drinks have come and gone at Starbucks — the Tazo Citrus, the Vanilla Spice Latte, the Chantico* — but some become so popular that they come back year after year with a bigger marketing blitz each time.

It’s been ten years since the introduction of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Starbucks wants to make sure you know that. It’s printed on the cup sleeves, it’s on the in-store signs, it’s all over Twitter with carefully cultivated hashtags. It might seem a little weird to be “reviewing” a drink that’s hit the stores every fall since 2003, but hey. I’m here to drink the drinks so you don’t have to. This review will give you an idea of whether it’s worth taking a hit to your hipster cred to pick up the most (over?)hyped early fall espresso drink. Rest assured, however, I don’t actually own yoga pants and there’s really no “fall” where I live.

Pumpkin Spice Latte

The (in)famous Pumpkin Spice Latte

So what is it? The PSL is a latte (that is, espresso and steamed milk) with “pumpkin spice” flavoring syrup, whipped cream, and a dash of spices on top. I don’t know how much actual pumpkin is involved in the creation of the flavoring syrup, but the “spice” in the name refers to pumpkin pie spices: usually nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.

Important note: Pumpkin spice syrup contains condensed milk. This means that even if you order the drink with soy milk and no whipped cream, it contains milk. If you are avoiding dairy for medical or ethical reasons, this drink isn’t for you. Hang on for a couple of months, and the Gingerbread Latte will be back — that can be ordered dairy-free.

This is a very sweet drink that tastes a lot like you’re drinking a spice of sugary pumpkin pie. It’s not very pumpkiny, but the pumpkin pie spices are nicely balanced and if you’re not a huge fan of coffee you’re in luck because it hides the taste of the espresso pretty thoroughly. If you prefer your coffee drinks to actually taste a bit like coffee, consider asking for half the usual amount of syrup and no whipped cream (this is how I usually order it).

Is it worth the hype? Well, if you like pumpkin pie and would like to be able to drink a slice so you don’t have to wash a fork, I’d say it probably is. If you miss it this year, it should be back every early fall around late August/early September, to tide people over until the winter holiday drinks return in early November. If you’re not big on super-sweet drinks, you should probably either pass or order it with less syrup and/or extra espresso.

I gotta say, though, Starbucks is pushing hard on the social media front this year. I’ll leave you with these fightin’ words they posted while I was preparing this review:

 

* I still miss the Chantico :(

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