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The Pumpkin Spice Latte: A History of Basicness

It’s officially fall! A time of changing colors, brisk winds, and warm cups of coffee. Speaking of coffee, the Pumpkin Spice Latte! Fall would not feel the same if we did not have the Pumpkin Spice Latte. An American delicacy consisting of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and espresso, this drink is sure to get anyone in the fall mood. So why is this drink so popular? What is its origins? For just another coffee drink it seems to resonate with the fall season in the U.S. Let’s find out why!

The Pumpkin Spice Latte, also known as the PSL, was created in 2003 by a group of Starbucks employees at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, Washington. After already having successful holiday drinks like the Eggnog Latte and Peppermint Mocha, Starbucks was ready to create a seasonal fall drink. After numerous experiments with different flavors, including eating pumpkin pie and drinking espresso to get into the spirit of fall, the team finally came up with a recipe consisting of pumpkin spice syrup with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, espresso, and steamed milk.* And the rest is history.

And wow does it have a history. Unfortunately, it’s not all sweaters and yoga pants. Like everything in the world, the PSL has a dark side. Let’s travel back to the Middle Ages. During this time, the Banda Islands, now modern day Indonesia, were rich in trading spices such as clove and nutmeg. Naturally, the whole world wanted in on this market, particularly the Europeans.

Map of Banda Islands, c. 1650

Arab traders were among some of the first people to enter into this market. Already having access to the Silk Road, the Arabs proved their advanced maritime skills by navigating another trade route that led to the eastern Banda Islands of Java and Sumatra. They became successful in this trade, selling to the Chinese and Europeans.** However, despite the Arab traders trying to keep the location of the nutmeg a secret, the Portuguese eventually found the Islands in 1511 and began to trade the spices for nearly 100 years. It was not until the Dutch showed up that things took a turn for the worst for the Bandanese people.

The Dutch invaded the Islands, built a fort, and forced the Bandanese people to sign a contract which stated that only the Dutch were in charge of trading the spices. Britain also appeared on the Islands as a new partner to the Dutch trade. Despite signing the contracts, which they did not fully understand to begin with, the Bandanese ignored them and continued to do their own trading.

The violence that ensued as a consequence was gruesome. The Dutch beheaded Bandanese leaders and enslaved many of the people to work and to cultivate the spices while also teaching the Dutch how to grow them for themselves. The Bandanese who were not killed or enslaved fled to the mountains where they were either eventually killed by the Dutch, starved, or committed suicide by jumping off of cliffs. After all of this massacring, only about 1,000 of about 15,000 Bandanese survived.

After these events, the English fought the Dutch for total control of the Banda spice trade, leading the Dutch to make a deal with the English. This deal, while it ended English control of the Bandas, gave England the island of Manhattan from the Dutch. And now this all comes full circle because as of now Manhattan is home to 240 Starbucks that serve the PSL every fall season.***

Now more available to the rest of the world, specifically the Western World, people could use these spices more frequently. They had the opportunity to mix them together to make new tastes and flavors, which could then be sold on the market. Even though people wanted to eat and drink things that actually tasted good, it all came down to making a profit. As time has gone, recipes are constantly changed, all for the purpose of something that can be successfully sold to the public. And now today in 2019, Starbucks has made its own concoction that not only brings many Americans happiness but also brings wealth to the company and corporate America.

So next time you are snug in your yoga pants and Ugg boots sipping on your warm Pumpkin Spice Latte, you can raise your cup to the Europeans while also remembering the human cost that now allows you to enjoy such a simple comfort.

References: * https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2014/starbucks-first-pumpkin-spice-latte/. ** Manguin, Pierre-Yves (2016). “Austronesian Shipping in the Indian Ocean: From Outrigger Boats to Trading Ships”. In Campbell, Gwyn (ed.). Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World. Palgrave Macmillan. pp.51–76. *** https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/08/27/pumpkin-spice-wars-violent-history-behind-your-favorite-fall-starbucks-latte/.

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