Grace Willcox, a barista at Salt Yard Cafe & Bar, pours steamed milk to make a pumpkin spice latte, featuring a new flavoring puree from pastry chef Michael Lagasse. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The kids are back in school, leaves are turning and there’s an autumnal chill in the air – all of which can only mean one thing: Pumpkin spice season is here.

The annual flavor craze, which may have originated with the launch of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL for superfans) 20 years ago, has fully woven itself into the fabric of our food culture. Beyond major marketing campaigns for pumpkin spice-flavored coffee beverages from big chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’, you’ll find independent operators all around Maine offering pumpkin spice beer, pastries, lattes, ice cream and cannabis edibles. Even inedibles like soap have joined the party.

Pumpkin spice is big business. In the fiscal year that ended in July, market research firm NielsenIQ tallied over 3,000 pumpkin spice products marketed nationwide, with sales (excluding products in restaurants and coffee shops) totaling more than $802 billion. Savvy business owners like Brant Dadaleares of Old Port’s Gross Confection Bar can’t help but join the pumpkin spice juggernaut.

The Gross Confection Bar coffee shop was located across Middle Street from Starbucks until closing at the end of 2022. Dadaleares, the chef-owner, recalled how Starbucks customers would try to sneak a seat at his outdoor tables while sipping their PSLs until he’d be forced to shoo them away.

Dadaleares, a classically trained pastry chef whose kitchen puts out intricately constructed, tantalizing desserts, is no fan of the PSL. “It’s a Starbucks drink that is, to me, God-awful,” he said. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to coffee, and I don’t think you need to be putting (expletive) into it. I don’t mind pumpkin spice flavor, but I don’t think it needs to be in coffee with tons and tons of sugar.”

He said last year, he and his staff decided to add a pumpkin spice dessert to their menu “almost as a joke.” Dadaleares developed his Pumpkin Spice Latte Mousse with multiple components: a mousse made from espresso and pumpkin spice, airy pumpkin sponge cake made in the microwave, cider gelee and caramelized white chocolate blondies tossed in burnt cinnamon powder.


Joke or not, customers loved it, causing Dadaleares to bring it back his year in early September. “We’ll keep it on (the menu) through the fall,” he said. “People love it. We sell tons of these things.”

The multi-component Pumpkin Spice Latte Mousse from Gross Confection Bar, a dessert that launched last year as “almost a joke,” according to pastry chef/owner Brant Dadaleares. Photo by Zack Bowen


But what is it about this combination of flavors and aromas – at its core, pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, sometimes with hints of allspice or clove – that we find irresistible?

“Pumpkin spice has come to be really strongly associated with the season in an almost inextricable way,” said Jason Fischer, a professor and researcher of human flavor and aroma perception at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “There is something distinctly autumnal in that mixture of aromas.”

Fischer said the power of subconscious association is at play here, noting that our senses of smell and taste are closely tied to memory. In the case of pumpkin spice, we’ve collectively come to associate that distinct flavor and scent with the onset of fall and all the positive connotations of the season.

Another factor is our desire for anticipated, familiar change – like the change in seasons – as opposed to the unexpected, jarring kind of change we tend to fear.


“A big component of the pumpkin spice phenomenon has to do with the cues we experience as the weather changes from summer to fall, the leaves turn and the weather grows cooler. Those cues call up the memory of the season from previous years,” Fischer said, noting that the limited seasonal availability of pumpkin spice-flavored food and drinks helps boost and focus public interest even more.

Of course, not everyone loves pumpkin spice. But Fischer said negative reactions aren’t necessarily in response to the flavor or smell of pumpkin spice, but rather because some people feel irritated by the dominance of the decades-long trend.

“It goes hand-in-hand with how ubiquitous it has become. We’re oversaturated with it. Anywhere you go now, you find – to an almost absurd degree – products marketed with pumpkin spice flavors and aromas,” Fischer said, noting that he recently ran across decorative wicker pumpkin spice-scented brooms at Home Depot.

“As pumpkin spice becomes ubiquitous, it becomes less special,” he said. “Some people just think it’s delicious and they look forward to it, other people just roll their eyes and can’t wait until the season is over.”


Regardless, many of Maine’s chefs, bakers, makers, baristas and brewers have been in the pumpkin spice game for years now – some for decades – and their customers eagerly await their special fall concoctions. Shipyard Brewing Company started brewing its famed Pumpkinhead Ale in 1996, seven years before Starbucks launched the PSL.


“It’s one of those coveted products people look forward to every year,” Shipyard founder and president Fred Forsley said of the ale, which sells nationwide and now has an associated brand ambassador, Pumpkinhead Pete, who stars in a viral Shipyard video with more than 13 million views. “It’s been really successful, mainly because of the drinkability. People call it a pumpkin pie in a glass.”

Shipyard Brewing Company’s popular Pumpkinhead Ale, served with a cinnamon rimmer on the glass, launched seven years before Starbucks released its pumpkin spice latte in 2003. Courtesy of Shipyard Brewing Co.

Though some years ago Shipyard would release its limited run of Pumpkinhead in mid- or late September, even October, the brewing company put the ale out in August this year.

“Every year we’ve released it a little earlier because that’s what the retailers and consumers want,” Forsley said. “Then after Thanksgiving it’s not really available, so you have to find it while you can.”

Gifford’s Ice Cream has come to bank on fall as prime pumpkin spice time.

“We’ve been making pumpkin ice cream for a while now – at least as far back as 2006 – and it was less inspired by the trend than a nod to our New England roots,” said Gifford’s CEO, Lindsay Skilling. “The flavors of the season are in our DNA as an ice cream company, so it just made sense for us to incorporate pumpkin as a limited seasonal offering at our family-owned stands. We certainly didn’t expect that it would do as well as it did. It’s now one of our best sellers every fall, and it led us to release it in pints that were available in grocery stores in 2022.”

Cape Whoopies in South Portland sells about 5,000 pumpkin spice “Life is Gourd” whoopie pies each fall, releasing them in late August to clamoring customers. Courtesy of Cape Whoopies

At Cape Whoopies in South Portland, owner Marcia Wiggins said they’ve been putting out pumpkin spice whoopie pies for about 10 years. Wiggins said they started with the Drunken Pumpkin whoopie but worried about the effect the amaretto liqueur in the filling could have on kids. They omitted the amaretto and called the new whoopie Life is Gourd, featuring pumpkin spice cake, with cream cheese extract flavoring its marshmallow filling.


Wiggins said her team usually starts baking the Life is Gourd whoopie pies Aug. 1, aiming to put them on shelves by about Aug. 20 “because that’s when people are really clamoring and asking, ‘When is the pumpkin coming?’ ”

Between in-store sales, purchases in area markets and online orders, Cape Whoopie sells about 5,000 Life is Gourd pies every fall, outpacing their two other popular autumn flavors, Grannies Gone Wild (Granny Smith apple cake with caramel filling) and Salted Caramel (chocolate cake with sea salt and caramel).

“It’s very well received,” Wiggins said. “We all wait for fall just because of these flavors. They’re some of our favorites of the year.”


While Starbucks and Dunkin’ have released their PSLs in August in recent years, local cafes like Bard Coffee have shown more restraint.

“We just think the big guys jump the gun in August,” said Bard General Manager Kevin Gaspardi. “It’s too hot for pumpkin then.”


Bard launched its PSL in mid-September this year, its third year making seasonal spice lattes. Gaspardi said Bard will likely keep the drink on the menu through November, possibly into December.

“But the big guys, you’ll see them drop (PSLs) pretty quickly, like after six to eight weeks,” he said, adding that the short window accounts in part for the marketing onslaught from the franchises.

Gaspardi said Bard improved its original PSL formula this year, adding actual pumpkin puree to the mix, a step Starbucks only took in 2015, 12 years after launching the product. Fischer said from a perceptual standpoint, Starbucks’ and Bard’s early formulas that relied on the spice blend flavorings alone didn’t seem to overtly lack pumpkin because our minds tend to fill in blanks to create a holistic experience that matches our memories – in this instance the taste of pumpkin pie.

Still, using real pumpkin puree does create technical challenges. “The trick is to create a mixture that dissolves well into the coffee,” Gaspardi said. “If it doesn’t mix well, it’ll just sit at the bottom of the cup. Which makes for a nice surprise at the end, but it kind of defeats the purpose.”

Michael Lagasse, the Salt Yard Cafe & Bar pastry chef, said he’s developed a new pumpkin spice add-in for Salt Yard baristas this season. His concoction includes sweetened condensed milk, simple syrup, pumpkin spices and real pumpkin puree.

“It literally tastes like liquid pumpkin pie, it’s delicious,” Lagasse said, noting that the real pumpkin lends the mix of earthy squash flavor and deep, savory bottom notes.


Lagasse also bakes a variety of pumpkin pastries at Salt Yard, like pumpkin-white chocolate gluten-free muffins, pumpkin coffee cake, pumpkin whoopie pies with cream cheese filling and Danish-style croissants filled with pumpkin spice ricotta filling.

“They sell out pretty quickly,” Lagasse said, noting that demand for pumpkin spice treats might have new motivations this year. “I feel because the summer was so rainy and not enjoyable, people are ready for the next season and the next step of the year.”

The pumpkin pie croissant-danish at Salt Yard Cafe & Bar. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


The megatrend hasn’t fully infiltrated the cannabis edibles market, though the few producers who’ve dipped their toes into the pumpkin spice pool say they’re glad they did. Pot + Pan in Portland put out a limited edition PSL chocolate bar last fall – formulated as 1:1, THC:CBD – infused with coffee and covered in cinnamon streusel.

“They sold pretty quickly because people just love anything pumpkin spice,” said the Pot + Pan chef, Tara Cannaday. “I am one of those simple, basic individuals who loves pumpkin spice. And you don’t really see it in chocolate products, you see it more in coffees and desserts.”

Cannaday said by popular demand, they’ll launch the PSL bar again Sept. 24 in another limited run of about 200 bars. “We’ve gotten lots of requests for it, and actually it’s a favorite internally with our team,” Cannaday said. “There aren’t a ton of options available with pumpkin spice in our industry, so I think that was why people were so excited about it.”


Even beauty and body product makers have capitalized on the public’s seemingly endless appetite for pumpkin spice, perhaps proving that its scent is at least as compelling as its flavor.

Russ Fye, who runs Maine Island Soap in Ellsworth with his wife, soapmaker Christina Fye, said their company debuted its Damariscotta Pumpkin Spice soap – named for the Maine town known for its annual pumpkin festivals – in 2018 as a seasonal soap of the month.

Damariscotta Pumpkin Spice soap, from Maine Island Soap, contains organic pumpkin puree and real ground spices. Photo by Pulp + Wire

The pumpkin soap was so popular the Fyes added it to their year-round lineup of 16 boxed soaps, though sales peak between fall and the winter holidays. “It’s one of the two top sellers in the fall, along with Katahdin Pine Needle,” Fye said.

Beyond the intoxicating aroma from the spice blend and clove essential oil, Maine Island’s pumpkin soap offers functional benefits as well because it contains organic pumpkin puree. Pumpkin is rich in antioxidants like Vitamin A, beta carotene and zinc, and Fye said the puree helps soften and smooth skin while boosting collagen production.

From a national sales standpoint, some analysts are bearish on the future of the pumpkin spice craze. A report in Fortune magazine in August indicated that pumpkin spice product sales have started to decline, dropping 1.5 percent year-over-year in the year that ended in July, after flatlining in July 2022.

Fischer said he wouldn’t be surprised if a new fall-focused flavor profile emerged as the taste of the season, but also doesn’t expect pumpkin spice to just disappear anytime soon.

“It’ll continue to have its fans and people who can’t stand it,” Fischer said. “But I think it’s deeply ingrained enough in our experience of fall that pumpkin spice will continue to have staying power. I’d bet on some good longevity.”

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