8 L.A. coffee shops putting a local, artisanal spin on the pumpkin spice latte
Call it basic, or call it one of the most brilliant marketing ploys the coffee world has ever seen. Heralding fall with the same gusto as an afternoon of apple picking — which does indeed exist within driving distance of L.A. — the pumpkin spice latte is back, featuring espresso with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and other warming spices often combined in pumpkin pie. Given that the spice blend the latte is based upon is more than two centuries old — and this year, the Starbucks-popularized drink that garnered a pumpkin-rabid fandom turned 20 — it appears the pumpkin spice latte is here to stay.
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The Starbucks icon reprised its reign Aug. 24 — nearly a week earlier than last year’s return — but independent L.A. coffee shops are currently turning out some of their own, more delicious takes. From Chinatown to Culver City, mom-and-pop cafes are building on the PSL — some even juicing fresh pumpkins, simmering small batches of kabocha squash or hand-grinding spices with a mortar and pestle.
To many, the drink has long signaled the start of autumn. Darren La Borie of Eagle Rock and Silver Lake coffee shops Muddy Paw is in his eighth or ninth year of offering a pumpkin spice latte made from real pumpkin, not store-bought pumpkin-flavored syrup. “If you ask me my biggest problem with the whole pumpkin spice craze, it’s that people say, ‘Oh, we can put it in a syrup,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘That’s just not the same.’ There’s so much to it.”
Others have only just recently started to explore PSL territory.
“In the beginning I kind of turned my nose up at stuff like that,” said Clark Street founder Zack Hall, now in his second year of pumpkin spice offerings. “It took me a while to come around, but now it’s just fun. The staff making them has fun, the customers coming in have fun with it.”
For pumpkin-themed amusement made by independent coffee shops (and one Latin supermarket), here are eight spots to find local, small-batch variations on the PSL in L.A. and beyond.
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The Las begin their process by cold-pressing the juice of fresh, peeled pumpkin, sweetened with demerara sugar for an almost molasses-like flavor. Two varieties of cinnamon — one a brittle cinnamon bark sourced from Vietnam, the other a variety from Indonesia — are combined for complexity, then added to the pumpkin juice and sugar as it simmers. Once it’s reduced by roughly half its volume, it’s strained multiple times, each time through a finer sieve. Be Bright’s pumpkin pie latte can be served with the cafe’s signature “cold foam,” a creamy whipped topping, while a cold-brew option gets topped with a cold foam that also uses the pumpkin syrup. Both variants get dusted with graham cracker crumble to replicate pumpkin pie. They round out a fall menu that includes a Rooted Fare black sesame crunch mocha and a campfire-inspired cappuccino with maple, vanilla and smoked sea salt.
Hall didn’t stop at lattes. The baker’s pumpkin spice white chocolate cookies are studded with Valrhona white chocolate, which gives the cookies an almost cream-cheese-like gooey center. Find the lattes and the cookies at all four Clark Street locations.
Coffee for Sasquatch
Ackad’s classic-leaning pumpkin spice latte combines pumpkin pie seasoning with puréed organic pumpkin straight in the cup with espresso and milk, and it’s sweetened with maple and dusted with spice for extra flourish. It’s joined by the return of another seasonal favorite — Coffee for Sasquatch’s spiced maple matcha — plus two new autumnal drinks: a mulled citrus espresso tonic and a honeycrisp-tinged London Fog. Ackad plans to serve this year’s fall menu until Dec. 1, if not longer.
Muddy Paw Coffee
Muddy Paw’s PSL is available hot or iced, and in both, freshly ground spices like cardamom and cinnamon — similar to a classic pumpkin pie spice blend — make their way into organic pumpkin purée, which is sweetened by brown sugar and a hint of agave. The lattes are finished with a sprinkling of the cafe’s custom spice blend, which includes a pinch of black pepper for bite. Co-founder Darren La Borie says Muddy Paw most likely will run this rendition until mid-November, at which point other seasonal drinks will fill the menu. Until then, the pumpkin spice drinks can be enjoyed with baked goods and other themed snacks made by a range of local bakers: vegan pumpkin bread, gluten-free pumpkin maple scones, pumpkin doughnuts and pumpkin spice cinnamon rolls.
Slammers at Brain Dead Studios
“The vegan coffee heads were really looking for someone who could do that kind of guilty-pleasure homage,” said former coffee manager Nicholas Murphy, who conceptualized the cafe’s PS I Love You recipe. The team toasts spices, including anise, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and fresh ginger, for a syrup to which they add organic pumpkin purée, careful not to overcook it in order to preserve the gourd’s more vegetal sweetness. For the hot latte, espresso and steamed milk are added to the cup before the espresso is dusted over a stencil of Brain Dead’s logo along with cinnamon and nutmeg. For the iced iteration, the syrup, espresso and cold milk get shaken with ice, creating a layer of foam that’s sprinkled with espresso and the two spices.
Thank You Coffee
“We don’t really eat pumpkin, but we eat a lot of kabocha,” said co-owner Jonathan Yang. “My wife, Julia, and I love kabocha but not all people know it, and we realized this is a neat way to highlight that kabocha is pretty much like a Japanese pumpkin.”
Thank You Coffee’s KSL derives its chief flavors from a blend of toasted spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and ginger, which are turned into a syrup with a combination of white and dark brown sugars and ginger bitters; it all gets steeped and strained. Yang steams fresh kabocha squash, then purées it and incorporates it into the spice syrup, adding depth without detracting from the spices, he says. In both locations, a hint of coconut condensed milk is added to the lattes — a nod to the ingredient often found in pumpkin pie — and they’re dusted with kinako, a roasted soybean flour, for added earthiness and a pie-crust effect. Due to its popularity, both shops expect to offer the KSL until at least January.
The supermarket’s in-house chefs German Gonzalez and Jesse Muñoz conceptualized the drink and, after months of trials, landed on a final recipe that augments their usual concoction of rice, milk, cinnamon and vanilla with cinnamon sticks, pumpkin purée, pumpkin pie spice, brown sugar and extra vanilla. They’re bringing it back to every location beginning Oct. 4, with no end date in sight. The horchata is poured into a vitrolero, nestled among the aguas frescas at the counter, and ladled into cups as ordered — or into 72-ounce plastic jugs. For even larger orders, the pumpkin spice horchata can be purchased in the full 5-gallon vitrolero, as seen at the counter.
Not to be outshone by its newer pumpkin-spice brethren, Vallarta also is bringing back its pumpkin spice tamales, a sweet-and-savory take that adds pumpkin purée, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and diced butternut squash to the tamale’s usual maseca. The downside? They’re so popular that most of Vallarta’s supermarkets — of which there are 26 in the L.A. region — sell out by early afternoon. Find both the tamales and horchata on offer through the season.
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