Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that the $7.00 price for a harvest latte at Cocoa Cinnamon includes an upcharge for oat milk and an automatic tip implemented for walk-up orders during COVID-19. An earlier version implied that it was the base price of the drink.
Recently, Duke’s towering trees have been transforming from a vibrant shade of green to tones of orange, brown and yellow. Durham’s 90-degree humidity has lowered to a cool 75 with a nice breeze. That means it’s officially fall, and with fall comes one very important and crucial item — a pumpkin spice latte.
For all of you reading this and shaking your heads, thinking of me as another basic PSL girl, you can continue to shake your heads because I will gladly take that title. There is nothing better than wearing a flannel to a coffee shop, ordering a pumpkin spice latte and pretending to be living the life of a Gilmore Girls star or at the height of Bethany Mota’s YouTube career.
Over the last six days, I tried six different Durham coffee shops, ranging from on-campus to off-campus, so all of you can indulge in your PSL fantasies. As college students, we do not have the time during fall semester to jump from coffee shop to coffee shop trying to find the best pumpkin spice latte. By the time we did, fall would be over and it would be peppermint mocha season. So that’s why I am here: to save you from wasting your time with a sub-par pumpkin spice latte when you could be treating yourself to only the best of the best.
After these six days, I have learned so much. What makes a pumpkin spice latte truly “autumnal” and one that deserves to be swept away from a witch’s broomstick. Over these past five days, I visited West Union’s Café, Beyú Blue, Triangle Coffee House, Cocoa Cinnamon, Starbucks and Liturgy.
During my fall adventures, I created a methodology of rating: one to five pumpkins with one being a moldy gourd and five being the cream of the crop. I will be measuring my scale based upon taste, price and aesthetics of the drink and the location.
My first pumpkin spice latte for the season was from West Union’s Café. The barista recommended their fall special, the pumpkin cheesecake latte (a twist on the classic pumpkin spice latte). Normally, I would order a hot drink, because fall inherently denotes warmth to me. However, after a long walk in 75 degree weather from the Ruby to West Union an iced latte was the only option.
As soon as I sipped my iced latte, I immediately became warm. The two ice cubes dancing in the drink slowly melted into the spice abyss. For 12 ounces and an oat milk substitution (as a lactose-intolerant individual I have started to believe that oat milk is supreme to almond milk but I think this is a debate for another article), $4.85 is not completely unreasonable. Substituting non-dairy milk is only $.50 at Café — at other coffee shops it can be $1.00 or more. The consistency of the drink is very thick and creamy. Typically, ice in drinks dilutes the flavor and makes the drink watery. Ignoring the lukewarm temperature, I initially tasted a very sweet cheesecake flavor, similar to the taste of a sugar cookie, that was then swept away to cinnamon and nutmeg. In lieu of a prominent pumpkin flavor, (no sweet yet earthy taste) there was the overwhelming taste of a sweetened version of the ingredients in my spice cabinet.
Although I qualify the pumpkin cheesecake latte as a “fall drink,” I would not classify it as a pumpkin spice latte. Additionally, for branding the drink as a pumpkin cheesecake latte, I was getting a whole lot of spice that was not even in the description. I would rename the drink “Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake Latte” to better fit the flavors present in the drink.
Sadly, I did not get the confetti that I expected would fall from the sky after having my first pumpkin drink of the season, but I was even more excited to continue my latte journey. My next stop is the classic food point killer, Beyú Blue.
Rating: 3.5 pumpkins
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Tuesday: Beyú Blue
My day was immediately made as I stepped into Beyú Blue and was greeted by the barista princess herself — Princess. After my slight disappointment at Café on Monday, I was unsure of what to expect at Beyú, but I was excited for day two of my PSL challenge.
For 16 ounces and a $1.00 upcharge for oat milk, my total was $5.65. Luckily I have an excess of food points at the moment otherwise I would have been deflated by the expense. The PSL is decorated with whipped cream and cinnamon, a flare that maybe, just maybe, makes the drink worth its price.
The flavors of Beyú’s PSL are harmonious; there is no dominant spice that overpowers any other ingredient. Additionally, the oat milk and whipped cream add a creamy consistency, and the whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon embodies the festive autumn spirit I was yearning for.
At the bottom of the cup, there is a lining of pumpkin syrup that I tasted with every sip. The latte’s color resembles the leaves falling from the Duke’s trees: a light brown and orange vibrancy. In contrast to Café I appreciated the amount of ice: not too much, which usually results in a watery consistency, but also not too little.
I continued to sip my drink until I realized I was slurping a mix of melted ice and whipped cream: I wished for a never-ending Beyú Blue PSL. However, the only way I would be able to indulge in daily Beyú Blue PSLs would be if my food points were never ending, too. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Rating: 4.5 pumpkins
Wednesday: Triangle Coffeehouse
Triangle Coffeehouse is not only a great place to grab tea, baked goods or coffee, but it is also a great study spot. The space encapsulates a cozy, intellectual energy and there are lots of wooden tables, socially distant from one another, to spend a few hours reading or doing problem sets. I felt like the epitome of a productive college student when entering the cafe.
Unfortunately, Triangle did not have any non-dairy milk substitutes, so I replaced the whole with skim milk. With a cost of $6.76 for 16 ounces, Triangle’s PSL was the most expensive thus far. Typically the reason for an expensive coffee is because of a substitution of whole milk for oat or almond milk, so I felt there was no reason for its high price.
Immediately I noticed the color of the PSL. In comparison to the others, this is a very dark and muted brown, hinting at a bitter flavor. Surprisingly, the spice flavors all warmed my palate at once: a strong taste of cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin spice seasoning. Following the spices is a sweetness, similar to a caramel apple flavor. However, the sweetness does not last long as it is distorted by the cinnamon. Overall, the drink was very flavorful and season spirited however, it tastes more like apple cider than a pumpkin spice latte.
Rating: 4 pumpkins
Thursday: Cocoa Cinnamon
There is honestly not much to say about Cocoa Cinnamon other than that I wouldn’t recommend this coffee shop. For a 12-ounce pumpkin spice latte with oat milk the price is $7.00 — the most expensive coffee I have ever had. (That $7.00 price tag includes a $0.75 upcharge for oat milk and a 20% automatic tip for walk-up orders, implemented during the pandemic to allow tipping using contactless payment. The drink's base price is $4.75, though the store also has a community coffee program that subsidizes drinks when cost is an issue.)
Cocoa Cinnamon’s pumpkin spice latte is called the “harvest latte,” an attempt at an “indie” flair. Although this coffee shop is known for creating drinks with non-traditional ingredients like cotton candy, my high expectations were not met, as the PSL lacked any flavor of spice, pumpkin or even sweetness. It’s as if the harvest latte forgot all the key ingredients that encapsulate a PSL and was instead a mediocre iced coffee. For a $7.00 coffee, each ounce counts, and I ultimately drank the latte because I paid for it, not because I enjoyed it. Cocoa Cinnamon may craft other, better beverages, but their pumpkin spice latte is a miss.
Rating: 1 pumpkin
In order to have the best comparison, it is crucial to have the standard PSL at the birthplace of the pumpkin spice latte — Starbucks.
To be frank, I was expecting a lot more considering that Starbucks crafted and branded this drink. For 16 ounces, the drink cost $5.95 — but I believe you are paying for the Starbucks brand rather than the actual quality. The flavor was dominated by the sprinkles of cinnamon on top of whipped cream that layered the drink. Each sip left a residue of cinnamon at the back of my throat. The drink tasted like warm milk, a hint of coffee and heaps of cinnamon. The best part of the drink was the last sip, where I finally reached the pumpkin syrup that lined the bottom of the cup.
Rating: 3 pumpkins
Upon entering the Durham Food Hall, arrows guided me to my destination: Liturgy Beverage Company. Branded with a grey billboard engraved with cursive letters, Liturgy exudes luxury. Emphasizing their “Harvest Menu,” I was immediately drawn to the “delicata spice latte,” their upscale version of a pumpkin spice latte. The “delicata spice latte” includes roasted delicata squash, coconut cream reduction and a fall spice blend. I did not know how to feel about squash in my coffee, but I was excited to try something out of the ordinary.
For 16 ounces, the coffee is priced at a hefty $6.00, but after the $7.00 12-ounce coffee from Cocoa Cinnamon, nothing shocks me. The coffee, sparkling with cinnamon spices in a milky light-brown liquid, had an even distribution of ice that enhanced the cinnamon and nutmeg flavor of the drink. Sadly, there was no coconut flavor. Overall, the flavor lacked the sweetness I was hoping for, but refreshed my palette with a light spice flavor.
Rating: 4 pumpkins
Overall, I am surprised to say that you don’t have to go far to find the best PSL, which can be found at Beyú Blue. So don’t fret if you don’t have time to hit a nearby coffee shop to get your fall flavor fixing: the best one is sitting right on Duke’s campus.
Maddie Menkes is a Trinity first-year. Her column "Food for Thought" runs bi-weekly and focuses on the culinary experiences of college students.