It’s indicative of the pumpkin spice latte’s reputation that when the subject of a taste test was broached, two of our staffers responded with vomit emojis. Similarly, when I put a call out for cafes with authentic-tasting PSLs on Instagram, it garnered three enthusiastic replies, along with one that simply said “yuck.” The enthusiasm with which PSLs are welcomed by some is matched by equal amounts of disgust from those who deem it a drinkable equivalent of a “live laugh love” sign over a shiplap accent wall. It is undoubtedly the most polarizing seasonal coffee drink—has anyone expressed such vitriol for the peppermint mocha?
But is a fresh pumpkin spice latte, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and real pumpkin, actually the enemy? Or does the blame lie with a certain coffee behemoth’s cloyingly sweet syrup and insufferable marketing campaign? And if anyone can transform the PSL into a genuinely delicious beverage, it’s the dedicated baristas of Portland, right? (Insert Padme: “Right?”)
The following pumpkin spice lattes represent the cream of Portland’s autumnal crop. None are flavored with run-of-the-mill syrups, though Fehrenbacher Hof (1225 SW 19th Ave) and Café Ponté (727 SW Naito Pkwy) made the best of their Monin syrup by steeping cinnamon into the frothy milk.
Presso Coffee Bar offers several seasonal drinks, but let’s not even get into the savory debate surrounding salted caramel lattes. Both their pumpkin spice latte and its cold brethren, the pumpkin spice cold foam cold brew, are flavored with Holy Kakow syrup. Yes, it’s purchased, but the cinnamon-strewn latte was leagues better than anything you’d get at the drive-thru. If you prefer cold coffee even in the cooler months, the cold brew is outstanding. 2020 N Mcclellan St
Flying Cat Coffee doesn’t mess around when it comes to syrups—all of theirs are made in-house, including the pumpkin spice. You’ll taste all the spices in a traditional pumpkin pie, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and vanilla. My barista confirmed that many people seem ashamed to order a PSL, but they shouldn’t be! He’s lovingly made that syrup just for you. 3041 SE Division St
It’s only natural that one of Portland Monthly’s favorite coffee spots also boasts one of the best PSLs in town. The key? Theirs is made with pumpkin sauce, rather than a traditional syrup. This ensures that you’re getting an earthy pumpkin flavor, which doesn't translate with an extract. Full disclosure: the sauce isn’t homemade, but who cares? It's damn good. 1401 SW Yamhill St
Walk up to the window at this St. Johns staple and it’s hard to miss the sign boasting “housemade” pumpkin spice lattes with real pumpkin and dairy. Music to my ears! Affogato’s thick PSL is sweetened with condensed milk rather than syrup, making it feel like a real fall indulgence. It is the pumpkin spice latte for haters of pumpkin spice lattes. 8712 N Lombard St
The barista at Kainos warned that their homemade syrup might have bit of a kick, but by this point there’s a good chance I’d built up a tolerance to cardamom. This PSL, while subtle at first, does have a slight spicy aftertaste. The flavor profile was the closest I tasted to an actual pumpkin pie—in fact, it would have been perfect with a crispy cookie for dipping. 6633 NE Sandy Blvd