On the crisp, almost-autumn morning of Sept. 17, we embarked on an odyssey we knew would change the lives of caffeine-fueled college girls forever.
We set out to find the best pumpkin spice latte Manhattan has to offer.
Well aware that an undertaking this bold would require teamwork, we decided to divide and conquer. After researching the 20 most popular PSL spots in Manhattan according to Yelp, we created a map and doled out assignments. Then, we reconvened for a serious tasting session.
What we found may or may not shock you.
Fall starts downtown and makes its way up.
In the East Village, coffee shops eagerly advertised signs with bright orange pumpkins, and down by Wall Street, baristas seemed more than ready to get the season started, serving up spicy nutmeg-topped lattes with a smile.
But above 42nd Street, the scene was one of a summer not yet forgotten. One editor found that half of her assigned shops would not be selling pumpkin spice for another week. One spot said not until October.
OK, it isn't technically fall yet, but everyone knows that real PSL devotees start craving one the second the August humidity dissipates, even for a moment. Why wait for leaves to fall before enjoying a cup of pumpkin-flavored heaven? Starbucks knows this logic all too well, and decided to release their not-so-secret weapon as early as Sept. 2 this year. (We may continue our experiment as more shops make the switch.)
Not all pumpkin spice lattes taste like pumpkin.
Of the 12 pumpkin spice lattes we were able to get our hands on, only four had a discernible pumpkin flavor. Others had stronger hints of coconut, gingerbread and even floral perfume, while some were just plain unrecognizable.
There is a pumpkin spice latte for everyone.
No really, hear us out. While some of the so-called pumpkin spice lattes didn't taste like pumpkin, they weren't all sugary sweet, either. Some were merely a solid cup of coffee with milk and a side of spice. Word to the haters: Don't knock it 'til you try it.
The reason pumpkin spice lattes are so beloved is not their taste so much as the feeling they embody-- the cozy hug of fall. So, although New Yorkers love to grab a cup and go, many of these lattes would have tasted much better if we had the time to sit and enjoy the quirky cafes they came from, feeling the fresh foam against our lips and admiring the leaf-shaped designs some baristas took the time to artfully top them with. Even the best cup of coffee loses something when you splash it on yourself on the subway.
So does aroma.
Not all of the lattes had a strong smell, but for the ones that did, it made a serious impact-- positive for some, negative for others. Before you gulp down your next cup, remove the lid and take a whiff. Note to coffee shops: Nutmeg is a nice touch. Making us feel like we're drinking a cheap candle is not.
Now, for the rankings.
After tasting each latte, our team ranked them based on pumpkin flavor, spice, sweetness and coffee taste, judging each category on a scale of one to five. (Yes, we took this pretty seriously. And yes, we were hyped up afterwards.) Then, we did the same for ambiance and value.
OK, Starbucks, we see you.
As much as we hate to admit it, when it comes to the best all-around pumpkin spice latte, Starbucks takes the cake. (No offense, Starbucks, but we were rooting for the underdogs.) While some of the other shops, such as B Cup in the East Village and Grounded in the West Village beat out the coffee super chain in terms of atmosphere, no one could trump its pumpkin spice mastery. Starbucks simply serves a well-balanced cup with the right blend of pumpkin and spice, without being overly sweet.
Where to find the true PSL experience
You know, the one you dream about all year. The one that you put on your favorite boots and sweater for. The one you Instagram. Autumn in a cup.
Starbucks (Find your nearest location at starbucks.com)
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (Find your nearest location at coffeebean.com)
Bean & Bean (71 Broadway)
Where to ease yourself into that PSL life
Quality lattes, without the in-your-face pumpkin effect.
12 Corners (155 E. Broadway)
Grounded (28 Jane St.)
The Uncommons (230 Thompson St.)
Berkli Parc Cafe (63 Delancey St.)
R&R Coffee (76 Fulton St.)
Dunkin' Donuts (Find your nearest location at dunkindonuts.com)
Where to spice things up
Get your kick at these spots, which scored a four or above in the spice category.
B Cup Cafe (212 Ave. B)
Bean & Bean
Oren's Daily Roast (Find your nearest location at orensdailyroast.com)
Where to treat your sweet tooth
If it's a sugary indulgence you crave, these are your winners.
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
Where to hang out
Forgoing a to-go cup? Good for you! These spots are worth spending your hard-earned free time.
Grounded (Sunny. Green. "Sexual Healing" on the sound system for the win.)
B Cup Cafe (Cool couch. Whimsical vibe. Jazz music.)
The Uncommons (Boardgames galore! Communal. Comfy. Nerdy.)
R&R Coffee (Friendly staff. Prime people watching. Tempting baked treats.)
Berkli Parc Cafe (Rustic decor. Knowledgeable staff. Plenty of seating.)
12 Corners (Nice break from Chinatown bustle. Books to browse.)
Empire Coffee & Tea Co. (568 9th Ave.; Much-needed respite from Port Authority madness. Beans to buy.)
Where to save
Let's be real here: PSLs are not the best use of your paycheck. Spending $3.47 to $5.25 (the range we encountered) on a 10 to 12 ounce cup of coffee (we ordered all smalls) is kind of absurd, but we know you're going to do it anyway. Here's where to spend the least.
Dunkin' Donuts ($3.47)
Empire Coffee & Tea Co. ($3.75)
12 Corners ($4)
Who makes your favorite pumpkin spice latte in NYC? Let us know in the comments.
-- With Rachel Senatore, Georgia Kral and Melissa Kravitz