When I was in college, there was a happy little Starbucks at the edge of campus where everyone gathered before and after class to study and decompress. As fall crept in and temperatures dropped, my friends and I, clad in big soft sweaters and scarves, often gathered on the small patio to smoke clove cigarettes and sip coffee, probably complaining about our late modern art class or rehashing last night's bar antics. Having grown up on an Ohio peninsula with only 500 or so year-round residents, amenities like Starbucks were entirely new to me — and when I first took a sip of a pumpkin spice latte on one of those cool fall afternoons, I felt its manufactured comfort deep in my bones.
This was a decade ago, long before the PSL had become a bonafide pop culture icon, bastardized into everything from cream cheese to car air fresheners. For a few years, I relished the first opportunity to sit outside, crisp leaves swirling at my feet, and sip that damn latte.
As the years went on, the PSL became a bigger and bigger phenomenon – and I learned more about coffee. One day, I sipped my first PSL of the season and nearly spat it out. It no longer tasted like fall; it tasted like sugar and plastic, a Yankee candle in a paper cup. Since that day years ago, I've missed the comfort I felt from those early pumpkin spice lattes but resigned myself to the fact that I'd never be able to enjoy one again.
That changed last week when I stepped into Oak Lawn Coffee for a pick-me-up.
At some craft coffee joints, ordering a latte with flavored syrup can make you feel like you just ordered a McRib at Morton's. But not at Oak Lawn, where they make their own syrups in-house and serve them without a hint of judgment.
"We started hand-making our syrups about a year and a half ago, and we're always trying to see what sort of flavors we can pull off," says Ben Hernandez, store operator at Oak Lawn. "Some of our most popular are our seasonals such as peppermint, lavender and of course, pumpkin spice."
Last week they brought pumpkin spice syrup back for the season, but it bears little resemblance to the processed, saccharine travesty you get at Starbucks. Oak Lawn Coffee's pumpkin spice syrup is made with white and brown sugar, actual pumpkin puree and spices like ginger and cinnamon.
"Make sure you're somewhere comfortable when you take your first sip," Hernandez said as he slid my pumpkin spice cappuccino across the counter. I didn't even need an oversized sweater or a chilly fall day to feel all those comforting memories come flooding back, my tastebuds dancing with a warm, sweet but not cloying pumpkin flavor.
Even better? I didn't feel lame as hell when ordering one.
"People love pumpkin spice, and we don't really feel like we have to fit into some sort of box labeled 'craft coffee shop,'" Hernandez says. "There's almost like this unspoken rule that if you serve syrups, you're not really sticking to the craft coffee formula, but that's just hogwash."
I had my fill of Oak Lawn's lavender syrup all summer long, and it was so refreshing that I hardly care how obnoxious I must have seemed when verbosely ordering an iced lavender latte with almond milk and an extra shot. Coffee without judgment is a beautiful thing.
"I feel like by hand-making our syrups, it almost makes us more of a craft shop because we're expanding what we have our hands on," Hernandez says. "Plus, they taste amazing and there's no weird colors or false sweeteners in them."
Oak Lawn Coffee, 2720 Oak Lawn Ave.