Pumpkin spice flavor has become so ubiquitous lately that it can be found in everything from lattes to protein drinks, and even in beauty products, yogurts, vodkas and chewing gum. But as the pumpkin-fueled fall season wanes, why hasn’t the nation settled on a definitive flavor for the winter holidays?
There are a handful of notable contenders — including gingerbread, cinnamon, peppermint, eggnog, chocolate, cranberry, and chestnut — but none of them have broken out as strongly as pumpkin did in the fall.
“When you think of pumpkin, there’s such a deep and intrinsic connection with the flavor and the fall,” said Danny Brager, senior vice president of alcohol beverage at Nielsen. “It’s between two significant holiday periods, Halloween and Thanksgiving. This period seems to be all about pumpkin.”
Flavor and food marketing experts agree: pumpkin-flavored food and drinks have dominated the fall season this year more than ever. Sales data have yet to be compiled for this fall, but pumpkin offerings in 2013 generated nearly $350 million in U.S. sales at Nielsen-measured outlets, up 14% from the prior year. Grocery stores have responded by carving out entire shelves to display all the limited edition, pumpkin-branded items they sell. Beer makers have also jumped on the bandwagon: there are now 77 pumpkin beer brands available, more than double what was available just three years ago.
But there’s no clear consensus on a flavor when the weather turns even colder. Experts interviewed by Fortune mentioned more than half a dozen flavors that see a jump in interest in the winter months. Many agree that the holiday schedule favors a more singular fall flavor, as pumpkin is able to transcend all religions and demographics. Thanksgiving, after all, is an American holiday. The winter season is more complex. There’s Christmas and Hanukkah, and other holidays, which bring different cuisine styles and flavors to American dining tables.
“In the winter, people have their own traditions that they follow,” said Blue Moon Founder and Head Brewmaster Keith Villa. “There isn’t a tried and true winter seasonal beer in the way that pumpkin beer represents the fall season.”
For the winter months, Villa said Blue Moon has experimented with a variety of different spices and mostly brews heavily roasted malted beers. He says consumers want their winter beers to be heavier, dark, robust and earthy. Some expect their winter beer to incorporate cinnamon or spruce tips, while others want alcohol-by-volume to be higher, Villa said.
Starbucks (SBUX), which has dominated the fall season with its pumpkin spice latte, is also still tinkering with the holiday flavor.
This year the coffee giant debuted a chestnut praline latte, the first new holiday beverage to be released nationally in five years. Last year, it tested that beverage alongside another concoction, cherry jubilee mocha, but said the chestnut drink was better received.
“Chestnut praline has that mix of old and new,” said Amy Dilger, a research and development manager at Starbucks. “‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’ it reminds me of old movies, Christmas songs, things like that.”
Dilger said chestnuts are more popular in Europe and other markets abroad, but felt that customers in North America could also appreciate the flavor. Starbucks, which first began to offer seasonal drinks back in 1986, said while chestnut praline isn’t a popular flavor right now, pumpkin spice wasn’t 11 years ago when it introduced that beverage.
Starbucks sold over 200 million pumpkin spice lattes in the first ten years, making it the strongest seasonal offering the company has ever brought to market. In the winter months, Starbucks sells gingerbread, eggnog and caramel brûlée lattes, alongside the new chestnut variety. Eggnog almost didn’t make the cut this year, but Starbucks is now planning to sell the beverage after customers complained.
“The concept of scarcity gets people to want to try it more,” said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University. The seasonal strategy is effective, Stanton explained, because it gives food and beverage companies an opportunity to say “Here it is, it’s new — and ‘new’ is one of the most effective words in marketing.”
Hedy Kulka, senior flavor chemist at International Flavors & Fragrances, said flavors such as candy cane, peppermint and eggnog are especially popular during the Christmas holiday, and consumers also tend to prefer cinnamon, nutmeg and other warmer spices. But Kulka said pumpkin eclipses all of those flavors, and the flavor’s presence has expanded to as early as August and as late as the New Year’s holiday.
“Pumpkin spice makes sense because it cuts through all demographics and regional ties, so food companies don’t have to worry about where they are shipping it,” Kulka said. She said food companies and consumers have only just started to “fuel the flames and try something new for the holiday season.”