The PSL Effect: A Yelp Analysis of Fall Flavors

The first day of fall is right around the corner! On September 22, we’ll be welcoming sweaters back into our wardrobe and saying goodbye to green leaves. Starbucks kicked off the fall season with its famed Pumpkin Spice Latte (or PSL for those in the know) on August 28 this year — the earliest it’s ever been released. This yielded passionate responses from self-proclaimed fall fanatics, the haters and brands like GrubHub and Burger King.

Inspired by the internet’s boisterous response, we wanted to see whether or not pumpkin spice might be at risk of losing its crown as the premier fall flavor. The week before Starbucks officially launched the 2018 PSL season, Nielsen reported that pumpkin-flavored products brought in $488.8 million in the last year. To prepare our palettes for these fall flavors, we looked at how seasonal tastes have risen and fallen over the years.

To gather this data, we looked at dozens of foods and flavors, including ones specifically selected because they are among the words and phrases that appear most frequently in U.S. reviews written during the fall within the restaurants, food and nightlife categories, relative to reviews written during the other three seasons. Then we tracked the flavors’ rise and fall by measuring their share of all words in U.S. reviews in those three categories over time.

Pumpkin spice may be what we associate with the start of fall, but its growth in review mentions has appeared to plateau in recent years. This year we saw the 15th anniversary of Starbucks’ PSLs and the introduction of Dunkin’ Donuts’ pumpkin spice bottled iced coffee. Will the beloved PSL no longer be all the rage in the coming years?

One interesting finding is that cider has been on the rise, and continues to eclipse pumpkin spice in review mentions. Cider’s review mentions grew 113% between 2008 and 2017. The most commonly used words that precede and follow review mentions of cider are beer and donut, respectively, indicating that cider’s massive popularity might have something to do with its adaptability to all kinds of foods and beverages.

We also looked into other flavors we typically relate to fall, and it turns out cinnamon, maple and salted caramel aren’t just isolated to autumn — they’re mentioned all year round.

Of note, cinnamon has also been on a steady incline in review mentions. The flavor saw a 39% increase from 2008 to 2017. Maple alone reached its peak in 2013, but “maple pecan” saw a sudden surge in 2017, which can be attributed to Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts launching the new flavor. And despite salted caramel reviews tapering off, Starbucks continues to launch their Salted Caramel Mocha, their clear alternative to the PSL.

So whether you’re more of a cider supporter, a maple devotee or a pumpkin spice purist, we can all agree that the autumn equinox brings along some of the most delicious flavors of the year. And, the famed PSL may not be as fawned over as we thought.

Gif via GIPHY