Hi! I'm Dannica, and I was a master barista and trainer at Starbucks for four years. To prove my expertise, I recently did a full-on taste test of Starbucks' 2023 new fall menu items, and they did not disappoint (surprisingly). Now, I'm back on Pumpkin Patrol™ to tackle what I would consider to be one of the most important taste tests of the season — trying and ranking pumpkin spice lattes from worst to best from some of the most popular coffee chains in America.
I'll tell y'all right now that I literally felt drunk by the end of the day. Don't ask me why I didn't get decaf or half-caff, because my quail egg-sized brain forgot that was even an option. I felt like a sugar and caffeine-stuffed piñata by the time the night ended. Even so, Pumpkin Patrol ended up being a success! I ended up going to five popular coffee chains: Dunkin', Starbucks, Peet's Coffee, Krispy Kreme, and Dutch Bros.
To welcome fall with open arms, I only tried the hot versions of these drinks and did so without any modifications. Here's the professional rubric I made up to judge the drinks:
OK, without further ado, here is my ranking of pumpkin spice lattes from worst (unfulfilling, kinda sad, meh) to best (amazing, spectacular, I feel like I'm in Gilmore Girls):
5. KRISPY KREME — Made with 2% milk by default, Krispy Kreme's PSL uses a limited-release Pumpkin Spice coffee blend that features notes of pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon. This drink comes iced or hot and is supposed to be topped with whipped cream and pumpkin spice seasoning.
Alright, so...I don't mean to throw a fit, but the menu photo and the description said that the drink would come with whipped cream and topping, so imagine my surprise when I popped the top off and saw this:
OVERALL SCORE: 2/5 🎃
I would not parade around a small Vermont town admiring the fall foliage with this drink in hand, but I would take a donut.
4. DUTCH BROS — Dutch Bros offers a pumpkin pie latte that uses sugar-free pumpkin pie sauce. Made with 2% milk and Dutch Bros' bold and nutty Private Reserve Blend, this drink is topped with whipped cream and comes iced or hot.
I have to say...I was rooting for Dutch Bros, but alas, my taste buds were not. The biggest qualm I had with Dutch Bros' Pumpkin Pie Latte was that I could barely taste the pumpkin. Whereas the Krispy Kreme PSL felt like I was front and center at a pumpkin party, the pumpkin pie flavor in this Dutch Bros drink was simply nowhere to be found. But also, look at it — sad! I was glad it came with whipped cream, the lack of sprinkles or anything to add color to the appearance of the drink was not giving me the fall vibes I anticipated, especially since the other fall drinks came with some sort of festive topping.
OVERALL SCORE: 3/5 🎃
I would choose this as my drink of choice if I were trying to pull an all-nighter and needed something to keep me company, but I would not drink this while frolicking through Vermont.
3. STARBUCKS — My alma mater, the great siren herself. Starbucks' iconic PSL is the Regina George of PSLs because every other seasonal drink wishes it could be as popular and well-known as her. Made with a default of 2% milk and a thick pumpkin sauce, the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte is topped with whipped cream and a dusting of pumpkin spice topping.
One thing about the Starbucks PSL is that she's gonna be orange. I'm unsure how many pumps of flavoring go into the other coffee shops' drinks, but the amount of pumps Starbucks uses in their latte build ensures that it's almost always going to be sweet. I can appreciate that Starbucks doesn't skimp on the flavor, and of course, you're free to modify your drink, but the PSL as-is is just a little too sweet for my taste. However, the pumpkin sauce has a nicer, almost delicate taste compared to Krispy Kreme, and I think the flavor blends really well with the espresso.
OVERALL SCORE: 3.8/5 🎃
If I had enough stars to redeem a free PSL, then I'd definitely carry this drink around with me to keep me warm from the crisp Vermont autumn air nipping at my skin. But I would not pay $6.45 for a small if there were other, more affordable options around.
2. DUNKIN' — This may be a shock to some (East Coasters), but this was the first time I had coffee from Dunkin'! I know "America runs on Dunkin'," but I was nervous. However, the Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte from Dunkin' really won in terms of being ~different~. Made with a default of 2% milk, this latte includes pumpkin sauce, vanilla syrup, whipped cream, caramel drizzle, AND cinnamon sugar. And the best part? It was $4.29.
Considering its ranking on the list, you already know that I loved it. You should also know that I was fairly surprised that I loved it since the receipt for the drink said everything that was in the recipe, and I was concerned that the latte came with vanilla syrup and caramel drizzle already. I was expecting it to be super sweet and heavy like the Krispy Kreme PSL, but no! It was actually a perfect blend of flavors!
OVERALL SCORE: 4/5 🎃
Fittingly enough, I would for sure go to one of the many Dunkin' locations that probably reside in Vermont and take a PSL with me on a date to take fall photos. Then I would probably go to Canada and get a cup of Tim Horton's.
1. PEET'S — The Pumpkin Patrol winner! This stunning pumpkin latte from Peet's uses their Espresso Forte blend, which is a dark roast with bold and rich flavors. Made with pumpkin sauce and topped with baking spices, this latte was created beautifully and was also a winner for my stomach since its default milk is oat milk (thank god).
Peet, whoever you are, thank you. To the barista who made my drink, you have magic hands. I don't know if I just drink shitty coffee on the daily, but this was one of the best lattes I've ever had. The milk was steamed to absolute perfection, the espresso was delightful and so robust, and the pumpkin flavor was light, slightly sweet, and earthy.
OVERALL SCORE: 5/5 🎃
If I had this drink in my hand in the middle of a crisp October evening in a small, fall-decorated Vermont town, I would probably consider that to be my peak form. This drink is festive yet sophisticated, and I imagine myself holding it as I clumsily bump into said small town's misunderstood yet handsome outcast. Sparks are felt, conversation starts, and romance ensues.
Whew, even recalling the Pumpkin Patrol experience I feel jittery. I want everyone to know that no, I didn't end up sleeping well, and yes, that was definitely a lot of sugar. Let's just say I woke up the next day feeling bloated and hungover. Even so, I had so much fun, and it was the biggest pre-game for spooky season that I've ever had. Of course, everyone likes their coffee differently, so if you want to go do your own Pumpkin Patrol, feel free (but bring a lot of water and maybe don't do it all in one day like I did)! That said, I do think that every PSL from these coffee chains has tons of appeal for different reasons.
And that's a wrap on Pumpkin Patrol! I will most likely not drink another PSL until next year, so now I'll be patiently waiting for winter drinks. In the meantime, do you have a favorite fall drink? Is there a PSL from a coffee shop not on this list that you ride or die for? What are you doing to prepare for spooky season? I am so curious to know, so let me know in the comments!