Here in the United States, the arrival of September is more or less synonymous with the annual inauguration of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Ever since Starbucks first rolled out the PSL in 2003, the flavor profile of “espresso mixed with something you’d eat at Thanksgiving” has not only become a derivative form of something recognizably American, but also contributed, in many ways, to the crystallization of an entire cultural movement. With more than 29,000 stores across nearly 80 countries worldwide, you don’t have to look hard to encounter Starbucks around the world, but its menu has, for better or worse, come to define certain aspects of American culture.
Starbucks, as a cultural phenomenon, is not so much about faithfully reproducing culture that was already in place, but rather creating something that didn’t exist before. Starbucks more or less brought Italian coffee culture to the United States without really bringing Italian coffee culture. And now, it’s kind of doing a similar thing in other countries around the world where it’s become somewhat of a familiar presence, like in China, which has the most Starbucks stores in the world, second only to the United States.
So…do other countries have their own version of the pumpkin spice latte then? Several other iterations of seasonal drinks have been rolled out in Starbucks around the world, many of which are region-specific. Take this list of holiday beverages that took the world by storm last winter, for example. Here, we see fanciful, saccharine concoctions like the Christmas Dessert Latte, which is inspired by British Christmas pudding but available in China. Or the Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha that was sold throughout Latin America.
Starbucks is hardly the only global chain to tailor its menu to the local market. You can get a wasabi cheese donut at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Singapore, as well as a kabocha squash burger at a Burger King in Japan. You can get poutine at a McDonald’s in Canada and a McCurry Pan at a McDonald’s in India, which make sense, as well as a gratin croquette burger at a McDonald’s in Japan and a mashed potato burger at a McDonald’s in China, which make less sense but sound kind of compelling.
Whether they’re an obvious reflection of the regional cuisine or a seemingly random addition to the local zeitgeist, none of these menu items were exactly pulled out of thin air. A lot of testing and market research goes into these decisions, so it’s safe to assume that the decision makers at the top are onto something when they decide to serve American-style pancakes in the United Kingdom, but not the United States. In these cases, global chains are latching onto something that’s not an in-your-face fact and helping it become part of the new regional identity.
So how well does this most recent batch of seasonal espresso drinks reflect the local market as it’s currently understood? Let’s take a closer look at five of them.
A Seasonal Take On Starbucks Around The World
Christmas Strawberry Cake Milk
Starbucks correctly identifies that “Strawberry Christmas cake is one of Japan’s most beloved holiday traditions,” but probably not for the reasons one would think. Seeing as about 1 percent of Japan’s population is Christian, Japan’s love of Christmas is not religious in nature. When American soldiers and Christian missionaries were occupying war-ravaged Japan after World War II, they would sometimes give out sugary desserts to the Japanese, who were suffering from food shortages at the time. The desserts were a symbol of wealth and luxury, and “Christmas” eventually caught on as a celebration of prosperity. Today, sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries is a ubiquitous symbol of Christmas in Japan (it even has its own emoji).
Snowy Cheese Latte
Of all the concoctions on this list, this espresso drink blended with baked cheese-flavored sauce and topped with whipped cream and blueberry-flavored sprinkles is perhaps the biggest head scratcher of them all. Cheese isn’t traditionally part of Chinese cuisine, but this wasn’t a miscalculation on Starbucks’ part. The cheese market in China is expected to triple by 2022, and it looks as though cheesy drinks are sweeping other Asian countries as well. Cheese tea, which originated in Taiwan, is super trendy in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, but it’s not exactly what it sounds like. The cheese in cheese tea is cream cheese, and the drink is mostly sweet. The baked cheese flavor in this Starbucks drink is apparently not so!
Market: Argentina and Uruguay
Described as a “local favorite,” the Hazelnut Mocha has been a Holiday Starbucks treat in Argentina and Uruguay for a couple of years already. There are no obvious connections between this flavor profile and the region that loves it, however. Hazelnut is native to Asia and is generally grown throughout Europe, and it’s used in cuisines such as Austrian, Turkish, German and Georgian. But Ferrero Rocher (yes, the fancy chocolate company) is responsible for a huge amount of the global demand for hazelnuts, and it maintains crops in Argentina and Chile. The lower valley of Argentina’s Río Negro has especially seen a lot of growth in hazelnut crops over the last 15 years — something to the tune of a quadrupling. While this doesn’t necessarily mean Argentinians are consuming more hazelnuts, it’s probably not wholly unrelated either. Still, there’s no clear correlation.
Market: United States and United Kingdom
This one really doesn’t require much digging to explain. Though its exact origins are somewhat disputed, most culinary historians agree that eggnog came from Britain, so it makes plenty of sense to serve it to the United Kingdom and its former colonies. In early medieval Britain, a drink called “posset” set the precursor for a beverage that was hot, milky and boozy. Eventually, 13th century monks were adding eggs and figs to theirs, and it became fully part of the holiday tradition when it came to the American colonies in the 1700s. Mexico and Puerto Rico each adopted their own version of eggnog too, known as rompope and coquito, respectively.
Dark Cherry Mocha
Market: Latin America and the Caribbean
Well, let’s see. Cherries are native to Eurasia and North America, and the mocha drink gets its name from the port of Mocha in Yemen, but it either originated in Italy or America (no one really knows). Rum cake, also known as Caribbean black cake or Christmas cake, is topped with fruits like cherries, prunes and currants, so it’s not as though you’ll never see cherries crop up in local cuisine south of the United States. While it’s most likely the case that the Latin American and Caribbean market seemed like a good place to introduce this drink for reasons that aren’t very obvious, the only thing that’s distinctly “regional” about this drink is the chocolate. Chocolate originated in Mesoamerica and is still a common ingredient in many Latin American dishes (who doesn’t love a good mole sauce?).
Main image: David Hurley