In 2003, Starbucks introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte, marking the early millennium as a time when the encroaching of Labor Day also guaranteed an uptick in food products. Since then, the flavor profile steadily gained steam, inspiring a predictable seasonal rush of everything pumpkin spice that seems to increase in creativity and fervor every fall for the past 15 years. What used to be a joke has become so ubiquitous as to barely be worth remarking on. This year, there’s pumpkin spice Spam and the return of pumpkin spice cinnamon rolls, and a pumpkin spice cold brew from Starbucks, in perhaps a gentle nod to the slow creep of the “official” introduction of pumpkin spice season, arriving earlier every year. Starbucks rolled out Pumpkin Spice Lattes for the season today, when most of the country is still very much in the grips of summer.
But in the last few years, pumpkin spice has been slipping. A look at Google Trends indicates that searches for the stuff peaked in 2016 and have been gradually dropping off every year since. We are post-peak pumpkin spice now. And food brands, sensing weakness, are jockeying to claim their territory as successor to the flavor throne. What comes after the reign of pumpkin spice?
Predicting the future is notoriously dicey business, but there are plenty of people employed to do it anyway. Flavor forecasters and food scientists have been at work on the next thing for years, but nothing has taken hold quite the way that pumpkin spice has. However, based on what various fast casual, fast food, and convenience food brands are offering up this fall, here’s a quick look at the contenders waiting in the wings to sub in for pumpkin spice.
Why we attach certain flavors to certain seasons sometimes has a logic to it. Peaches are at their peak in summer, so peach-flavored things seem more at home in July than in April. But when it comes to the flavor trend boom, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with growing seasons so much as marketing a kind of feeling. Pumpkin spice, after all, is built around the spices that are commonly used when baking pumpkin pie—all-spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Those aren’t limited use to one time of year. But the inclusion of “pumpkin” reminds you of fall leaves and tall boots and jack o’lanterns, turning it into a seasonal special.
In fall, the feeling that people are marketing to you is coziness and warmth. In the past few years, there’s been a clear increase in bourbon as a fall and winter seasonal flavor. It doesn’t have much to do with bourbon being attached to the seasons—there’s not a bourbon harvest that happens in October or anything. But bourbon feels at home in the same landscape as boots and outdoor fires and tailgating, and so, in recent years, it’s become promoted as a fall flavor thing, and the fast casual and fast food chains are latching on to it. Plus it is brown, a color associated with fall because, I guess, dead leaves. Denny’s launched a Big Bourbon Flavors menu with Apple Bourbon Pancakes, a Bourbon Bacon Burger, and a Bourbon Chicken Skillet. Bourbon’s 21-and-over stipulation is a limiting factor in its bid for the pumpkin spice throne—you can’t really see a Bourbon Latte going over quite as well—but in combination with other flavors, like apple or brown sugar it could be a contender.
Salted caramel, not being a crop with a growing season, isn’t something that’s particularly attached to one month or another. But you can see why it falls into that cold weather category. During the hot summer days, baking isn’t as much of a priority. In the fall, when turning on the oven isn’t quite as painful, the sweet-and-salty charms of salted caramel can be better applied to brownies, cakes, cookies, and apple pies. Blue Bell launched a Salted Caramel Cookie ice cream for the fall, and Dairy Queen rolled out a Heath Caramel Brownie Blizzard for fall, both shoring up the caramel end of things.
Of course, another strategy is simply to tease apart the spice combination that makes pumpkin spice sing and invest in just one of those. Cinnamon is a case for this strategy, like the cinnamon Coke that’s arriving to the shores of the U.S. soon. Other spotlights on spices gesture towards the wellness trend embracing the potential medicinal properties of those ingredients—you could see a cardamom wave, an embrace of ginger, or maybe flirting with something spicier, like Aleppo pepper.
Maple syrup can be enjoyed all year round, but the maple syrup season is actually February through April, if you’re talking about the time that the stuff is actually tapped from trees. Still, perhaps thanks to climate change and perhaps thanks to the conflation of fall and winter into one long mega-holiday season, maple has definitely become part of the fall flavors round-up in the past few years. In 2017, Market Watch predicted that maple would unseat pumpkin spice as the flavor to watch for fall. Two years later, and maple is on the ascent, but pumpkin spice remains very much alive and kicking. And perhaps the problem is that attaching maple to the fall roster is proving trickier than anticipated: Unlike pumpkin spice’s Google trend chart, which features a predictable spike every autumn, searches for maple are unpredictable. “Maple syrup” searches tend to spike in March. Google trends isn’t exactly an oracle, but it does suggest that the shift from spring to fall hasn’t worked as neatly as its boosters may have hoped.
So the search for pumpkin spice’s successor is ongoing. But where there’s weakness, another flavor will rush in to one day rule supreme over our grocery stores in fall.
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