The Great Pumpkin Spice Latte Smackdown

pumpkin-spice-everything

It’s that time of year again, when pumpkin spice madness sets in and everything under the sun becomes infused with that unmistakable autumnal flavor. As a lover of coffee and of all things pumpkin spiced, I thought it would be fun to do a side-by-side comparison of pumpkin spice lattes from three popular purveyors.

For this pumpkin spice latte smackdown I chose McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme, and Starbucks. All three just happen to be in close proximity both to my home and each other. While I wander into Krispy Kreme and Starbucks way too much now and then, I hadn’t been to McDonald’s in quite a while. I thought it would be fun to see how McCafe’s pumpkin spice latte stacked up against Krispy Kreme’s and Starbucks’.

Methodology

At all three retailers, a small latte is 12 ounces. For the sake of uniformity, I ordered a small at each location. As I purchased each beverage I took a “first impression” sip. As Giada de Laurentiis is fond of saying, “We eat with our eyes first.” My first impression sip included my first thoughts upon seeing the beverage as well as my first impressions of the latte’s taste.

Once I had purchased all three lattes I tasted each one in depth, taking sips of water in between to cleanse my palate. Finally, I tasted the lattes back to back, with no water in between. This process allowed me to taste each beverage both on its own and in direct comparison to each other.

First Impression Sips

McDonald’s: No whipped cream? Hmm, not bad for a $2 latte.

Krispy Kreme: Pretty! And slightly better than McDonald’s.

Starbucks: We have a winner! No more autumn cups? Bummer!

The Nitty Gritty

During this smackdown I took several things into consideration including price, ingredients, flavor, and overall value. Here’s the breakdown on price and ingredients:

McDonalds’s: $2.19 Made from pumpkin spice flavored syrup (ingredients include “natural flavors”), espresso, and whole milk. (Nonfat milk is available.)

Krispy Kreme: $3.29 The ingredient list was not available online that I could find. However, I did watch the barista use Torani pumpkin pie syrup which does list its ingredients online (no actual pumpkin, only “natural flavor,” however, the syrup does contain nutmeg and clove). The latte I purchased was made with 2% milk.

Starbucks: $4.45 Made from espresso, 2% milk, and “pumpkin spice sauce.” The pumpkin spice sauce contains actual pumpkin in the form of puree (as well as the ubiquitous “natural flavors”). There is also a pumpkin spice topping made with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove.

Interestingly, there was a 10-cent per ounce jump in price from McDonald’s to Krispy Kreme to Starbucks, with McDonald’s costing approximately 18 cents an ounce, Krispy Kreme approximately 27 cents per ounce, and Starbucks approximately 37 cents an ounce. I also found it interesting that I was charged sales tax at McDonald’s but not at Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. (Of course, sales tax will vary depending on your location. I purchased the lattes in Los Angeles County, California.)

In Depth Tasting

McDonald’s: The McCafe version is sweet but not too sweet. The coffee flavor stands out on its own, distinct and apart from the sweet flavoring. This results in a beverage that basically tastes like sweetened coffee, which is pretty much what it is. It’s tasty, but I’m not sure what flavor I’m tasting. It doesn’t jump up and shout “pumpkin spice.” If I were tasting the latte blind, I might have a hard time pinning down the flavor.

Krispy Kreme: The whipped cream and cinnamon on top made for a much more nuanced and complex sip. Like McD’s, Krispy Kreme’s pumpkin spice latte is sweet without being too sweet. There’s a definite identifiable pumpkin spice flavor. Even though this latte was made with 2% milk, it comes across as richer than McD’s whole milk latte. With the Krispy Kreme version, the coffee and pumpkin flavors are well blended so you don’t taste them separately they way you do with the McD’s. Overall, a higher quality beverage that I enjoyed.

Starbucks: Like Krispy Kreme’s pumpkin spice latte, the whipped cream and cinnamon spice topping are definitely the icing on the cake. Beyond that, there’s a signature Starbucks flavor that comes through no matter what espresso beverage you order. The PSL is no different. Like the first two beverages, Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte is sweet but not overly so, and also like Krispy Kreme’s offering, there is a definite identifiable pumpkin spice flavor. However, what really sets Starbucks’ PSL apart is that distinctive earthy note of the espresso. This is definitely the coffee snob lover’s pumpkin spice latte.

Results

Tasting and comparing these three lattes was a lot of fun. After consuming more pumpkin spice in one sitting than is probably healthy, I came to some conclusions:

If you’re short on cash or are driving through McD’s for the kids but want a pumpkin spice latte for yourself, McCafe’s isn’t bad. However, the quality just isn’t as high as Krispy Kreme or Starbucks.

When tasted back to back, I’m hard pressed to choose a winner between Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. They are both smooth, flavorful espresso drinks that deliver pumpkin spice pleasure. Krispy Kreme is slightly sweeter while the espresso component of the flavor profile is slightly more predominant with the Starbucks latte. What it really comes down to is how much you like that signature Starbucks flavor.

Winner(s): Starbucks edges out Krispy Kreme by dint of being made with actual pumpkin. However, Krispy Kreme edges out Starbucks on value. Costing about 10 cents less per ounce than Starbucks, Krispy Kreme delivers rich flavor at a lower price.

While I found the Krispy Kreme and Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes to be head and shoulders above McCafe’s, what it ultimately comes down to is personal preference.

Here’s to a beautiful, bountiful, pumpkin spice-filled season! Cheers!

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