The signs of Fall are certainly approaching as Starbucks has reintroduced its seasonal Pumpkin Spice lattes. The crowds are flocking for a taste of this sweet, pumpkin-pie-like beverage, but the demand is high, the price is steep, and the lines are long. To bring the Fall flavors home (and at a more reasonable price), Starbucks Via Ready Brew has introduced a Pumpkin Spice instant coffee  ($8 for six cups), and it only seemed natural that we would taste the two side by side to compare the flavors. Which one reigns supreme? The results may satisfy you or they may take you by complete surprise . . .
The store-made latte contains espresso, pumpkin-flavored syrup, steamed milk, and pumpkin pie spices, but the at-home mix has a slightly different set of ingredients. The actual powdered mix contains instant Arabica coffee, cane sugar, and natural pumpkin and spice flavors. According to the back of the box, the powder is "[s]pecifically designed to be made with hot milk" and is "inspired by [Starbucks's] Pumpkin Spice latte." Despite the variations, the Via should taste "rich and creamy" and "sweet and spicy" like the latte itself.
To maintain the milky foam on the top of the beverage, we deviated from the instructions. Rather than pour the hot milk over the coffee, we poured the powdered coffee over the milk and carefully stirred it in. However, it didn't detract from the finished product. The powdered coffee dissolved in an instant and left no clumps behind.
The Appearance and Scent
The latte (pictured left) has a rich, orange tint, making its pumpkin presence known. Alternatively, the Via (pictured right) has a pale brown color like black coffee mixed with milk. As for the scent, the latte bursts with clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which is visibly sprinkled atop the foam.
The scent of the warming spices permeates through the lid, and one can't help but feel a pang of nostalgia for Fall foods. The spicy scent doesn't translate as well for the Via. Instead, the coffee scent is much stronger with only a mild hint of the pumpkin spices. However, a dash of pumpkin spices from the spice rack could easily solve this disparity.
The Taste Test
Those who wish for something that will hide the taste of coffee will prefer the latte, and those who crave the taste of coffee will lean toward the Via. The rich, silky, and sugary mouthfeel of the latte greatly differs from the thinner consistency of the Via, even though the beverages were made from the same type of milk. This is mostly due to the sugar content. The Via contains about half the sugar, enabling the roasted flavor of the coffee to shine through. The latte, while bolder in its pumpkin spice flavor, only retains a faint earthiness from the espresso shot because it's so sugar-laden.
Pumpkin Spice Latte
Via Ready Brew Pumpkin Spice
In a surprise twist of fate, two out of three tasters preferred the Via to the latte, due to the pronounced coffee flavor and less sugar content. While the latte is nuttier and more pumpkin-like, the spices are almost too overwhelming. Perhaps the barista had a heavy hand when garnishing the drink. Either way, the latte still holds a special place in our hearts, but we're new fans of the Via, especially since it can be made in a snap of a finger and for a fraction of the price.