I drank every pumpkin spice latte in Chapel Hill to try and find the best one
The most basic thing I’ve ever done
In an effort to find the best version of our favorite fall coffee, I had the ultimate white-girl day. I drank every pumpkin spice latte in Chapel Hill so you won’t have to.
I’m not kidding. I walked from Franklin to Carrboro, stopping in every coffee shop and asking for a PSL. I got a few snickers, eye rolls and questionable looks. Oh well, haters.
By my third cup, I was so hyped up on coffee and sugar. I won’t lie, I had the absolute worst crash two hours later and hated myself. I know what you’re thinking: “Can one type of drink really vary in flavor that much from coffee shop to coffee shop?” But let me tell you, it can.
I wanted to rate the overall experience because drinking a pumpkin spice latte is so much more than just drinking coffee. It’s an American tradition, damnit.
I awarded a 0-5 score to each PSL based on three different categories – environment, presentation and flavor – to find the overall score. Zero was horrible and five was magical unicorn potion. Very scientific, I know.
As I opened the door to Panera, the smell of fresh brewed coffee and baked bread wafted over me like a beautiful wave – hypnotizing me into wanting to eat everything in sight. I was immediately so ready for their latte. Bring it, ‘Nera.
I could not have been more disappointed.
Imagine taking the warm mug in your hands, caramel syrup drizzling down the edge as you tip the mug, closing your eyes and smelling the warm cinnamon. As soon as the coffee touches your lips, your entire world shatters. Your whole life has been a lie and all you can hear are trumpets playing the “Funeral March” to all of your coffee hopes and dreams.
Environment: 2. It’s all fine and great for studying, but they’re super deceiving in the quality of their PSL. I expected more. How dare you play with my emotions, Panera.
Presentation: 5. By far the fanciest one of all. Again, deceiving. Lies.
Flavor: 0. I can’t sugarcoat it because Panera took any and all sugar I could have had and put it in this drink. Also, the cinnamon to pumpkin ratio was way off.
It’s okay Panera, I’ll always come back for your paninis and mac n’ cheese. Love you long time.
Carolina Coffee Shop
Walking into Carolina Coffee Shop, I half expected my drink to be a pretty no-bullshit cup of coffee. The reclaimed wood and exposed brick give the place a certain “we don’t mess around” atmosphere.
Much to my surprise, the barista placed in front of me a syrup-drenched, “Friends”-esque yellow mug bigger than my face.
Environment: 5. The music was on point and the lights were dim and moody. Mmm, sexy.
Presentation: 1. Yeah, the mug was cute, but that was about it.
Flavor: 2. I’ll cut them some slack because it is their first year serving a PSL, but it needs work. Too much nutmeg and not enough pumpkin. Had I blind tasted it, I would not have guessed PSL.
I’d be open to going back and ordering something else.
I’ve been inside Sugarland many a times before writing this, but the entryway still reminds me of Candyland in all of the best ways. It honestly makes me feel fuzzy inside. I went in with high hopes expecting their PSL to do the same.
Environment: 3.5. Pretty average for a cupcake shop with cute pastel colors and lively people buzzing with sugar highs.
Presentation: 2.5. Not that it was a bad presentation, it was just little effort.
Flavor: 3. Their homemade pumpkin spice syrup makes all the difference. I could really taste the pumpkin. The latte is super frothy and vanilla-y and will make you feel fuzzy inside (see above).
If I found myself inside Sugarland again, I’d probably order the PSL.
Weaver Street Market
I’ve always loved Weaver St. for its off-campus vibes that transport you to a small, adorable hippie town far, far away from exams and papers. It was a beautiful fall day, a record player squeaked away at a nearby bench. Nearby, a small child terrifyingly climbed a massive tree while his parents were nowhere to be found and a dog looked at my scone in a way I can only hope my future husband will look at me.
Environment: 5. You can’t beat Weaver St.
Presentation: 3. The presentation was pretty average but I have to admit, the scenery helped immensely.
Flavor: 3. Again, average. Probably my favorite coffee flavor and the spice was very subtle. If you prefer your flavored lattes to be smoother and less syrup-tasting, go for Weaver. Pretty solid balance.
I’ll definitely be going back to Weaver. I’ll order the PSL if I’m really craving it.
Ah, lastly, Starbucks. Normally, I order a white mocha with a fourth of the syrup and coconut milk, but for this experiment I knew I’d have to order the decked out PSL. I walked inside determined to hate every sip out of spite just so I could stick it to The Man.
I left unsure of whether I was more impressed with their coffee or disappointed in myself for loving it. TIP: If you know you’ll be sticking around, ask for your coffee in a ceramic mug for a solid discount. You’re welcome.
Environment: 3.5. Sweet, conversational baristas but the loud music and buzzing of students made it hard to enjoy. Also, there was nowhere to sit which made me sad because I had a ceramic mug and couldn’t just leave, so I stood in a corner. Moving on.
Presentation: 4.5. Starbucks was the first one in my coffee adventure to serve with whipped cream. I can’t deny the white mug is iconic AF. I only decked half a point because I didn’t have a proper table to take pictures on. Sorry, not sorry.
Flavor: 5. I. KNOW. It was the perfect combination of sweet and warm spiciness and I hate myself for giving it a 5, but taking off a point out of sheer spite wouldn’t be fair. They’ve had 12 years to perfect it, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s a reason they were the ones to start the trend. Snaps to you, Starbucks. Snaps to you.
Overall: 4.3. Near perfection. If only I had had a table to sit.
There you have it: my inexperienced critique of every PSL between Sugarland and Weaver St. There were coffee shops that didn’t offer the drink, in which baristas judgingly watched me walk out empty-handed.
Also, two others had run out of their PSL syrup so I was unable to include them. But we still have five options to feed our basic addiction. Sip responsibly.