Mary O'Brien sat on the Wildwood beach Sunday, umbrella above her head, sand between her toes, and a hot pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks in hand.
Sure, it's not technically fall yet. But O'Brien, 27, of Haddon Heights, wanted to mark the unofficial start of the season by taking her seasonal, sugary coffee with her to the Shore — and taking her place among scores of Starbucks fans insistent on acknowledging 2018's early release of the drink. This, despite the two months until Halloween, the 90-degree temperature, and the fact that pumpkin spice lattes live among avocado toast and UGG boots on the list of things that, according to the internet, render a person basic.
O'Brien, and plenty of others like her, doesn't care about the hate anymore.
"I used to buy into it when I was younger, like doing anything that's super-popular makes you basic," she said. "But recently, I've been like, I like this, and let me do something that I like. Things are happening in the world. Don't be mad that I'm drinking a pumpkin-flavored coffee."
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the drink — the most popular seasonal beverage ever, of which Starbucks has reportedly sold 350 million — and the earliest in the calendar year the coffee chain has released it. Pumpkin spice lattes, known as PSLs, hit Starbucks menus Aug. 28, about a week earlier than in recent years and just two days before rival Dunkin' Donuts launched its fall menu, which also includes pumpkin products, though Starbucks remains the undisputed leader of the pumpkin spice latte.
The beverage is a concoction of espresso, frothed milk, and something called "pumpkin spice sauce," also known as sugar, condensed milk, and pumpkin puree. A grande (that's a medium) will set you back 380 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 50 grams of sugar — the same amount of sugar as five Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts.
Over the last several years, the idea of a pumpkin spice latte has become a meme of sorts, serving as a cultural touch point and a polarizing issue. Starbucks higher-ups have even acknowledged: "It's taken on a life of its own." Most opinions about the drink fall into three buckets:
1. You love the PSL and all it stands for, embracing the hate and surrendering yourself to charges of being a basic millennial and/or a privileged white woman (even if you're perhaps not …)
2. You hate the pumpkin spice latte and let everyone online know you think it tastes like a melted, fall-scented candle and you would never be caught dead spending $5 on such an abomination, therefore solidifying yourself in the Twitterverse as a Very Not-Basic Person.
3. You pretend to detest the fall sludge-in-a-paper-cup even though you deep-down love it, meaning at some point this season you will end up in a Starbucks feeling downright ashamed and melting into a puddle when the barista yells: "Grande pumpkin spice latte with extra whip for [insert bad pronunciation of your name]!"
This year, thanks to the drink's early release, there's another hash in the anti-PSL column: It's hot out. Since the drink has returned, Philadelphia has felt more like a summer afternoon in a tropical rain forest than a chilly fall day when the air smells like cinnamon and flannel shirts are appropriate attire.
Bruce Clark, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, said the early release is indicative of a phenomenon called "seasonal creep," the idea that companies stretch seasons to offer their most popular, temporarily available products for longer (read: Christmas decorations in October).
"The risk," he said, "is you stretch it too far, then you annoy more people than you please, and you lose that 'limited-time offer' associated with the season."
But Starbucks will overcome. There's something about the pumpkin spice latte — Clark said consumers identify with the smell, which can evoke positive emotions associated with memories and nostalgia — that keeps people coming back to mark the new season, now even in early September.
David Eckard, 38, of Manayunk, said he's been drinking pumpkin spice lattes for about five or six years and will likely buy one once a week while supplies last (usually until November, the same time Starbucks starts marketing its red holiday cups, gingerbread drinks, and peppermint mocha lattes). Eckard ordered his first PSL of the season Tuesday, and the barista asked whether he wanted it hot or cold. He didn't hesitate: hot. Otherwise, it just doesn't feel right.