Omaha coffee shops offer alternatives to Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte

Review by NoraCorrigan

Between the changing leaves, the cool weather, the throwback Disney movies and all around cozy vibes of fall, there is one thing that simply makes fall fall: the pumpkin spice latte.

Just as college baseball fans wait all year for the arrival of the Men’s College World Series, Starbucks fans await the sacred time of year in which they can sip on a pumpkin spice latte outside on a chilly day while wearing their favorite oversized sweatshirt.

In recent years, local coffee shops have also introduced their own spin on the best selling PSL (pumpkin spice latte), some even creating their own fall inspired menu. Inspired by the cool fall weather, senior Carli Beal and I took to the streets and tasted several fall coffees from three different local cafés to put Starbucks’ iconic PSL to the test.

We reviewed fall menu items from three downtown locations; Zen Coffee, 13th Street Coffee and Tea Company and Sozo Coffeehouse. At each shop we ordered different fall drinks, and rated each experience based on drink flavor/taste and price, vibes of the shop and overall experience.

Senior Carli Beal sips a ight of coffee at Zen Coffee. She enjoyed the Apple Chai flavor. Photo by NoraCorrigan

We began our coffee crawl at Zen Coffee at 25th and Farnam. Zen Coffee is known for their coffee flights. These flights include four different samples of Zen original drinks for the overall price of about $20, or $5 per drink. Beal and I ordered the Apple Chai, Golden Matcha, Harvest Spice, and Brown Sugar Shaken espresso.

To me, the Apple Chai tasted exactly like what you might expect a fall candle to smell like. According to Beal, the self-proclaimed chai queen, the chai flavor was “just right” and even competed with her favorite iced chai latte from Starbucks. Crisp with strong hints of apple and a good balance of sweetness, the Apple Chai amounted to an outstanding 5/5 for flavor and taste.

While the Apple Chai wowed us, the Golden Matcha was underwhelming. I myself am not a matcha fan as it requires an acquired taste, however, Beal is not only the reigning chai queen, but holds the title for matcha queen as well. She felt like the matcha flavor was extremely diluted and the drink itself didn’t invoke much of a fall flavor. Overall the drink was too earthy with little fall excitement and received a ranking of 2.5/5.

Next, we tried the Harvest Spice. This drink was my personal favorite from Zen Coffee. It was not an espresso drink, but rather a normal hot coffee. The spice flavor was blended very well into the drink making it tolerable for those of us who aren’t inclined to drink sweet coffee. However, similar to the Golden Matcha, the Harvest Spice did not stand out as a unique fall-flavored drink because of its diluted taste. We gave it a 4.25/5. Our final fall drink from Zen Coffee was the Brown Sugar Shaken Espresso. Along with the PSL, the Brown Sugar Shaken espresso is a fan favorite at Starbucks, and because of that, Zen’s take on the classic was simply average. We went to a local coffee shop to try their spin on Starbucks’ fall menu drinks, not to order the same drink as a slightly overpriced option. For this reason, the Brown Sugar Shaken Espresso received an overall ranking of 3/5. It was good, but nonetheless average.

The overall experience at Zen Coffee received a 3/5. While the vibes were both quiet and cute, the price bogged down our experience. The coffee flight was $20, meaning each drink was about $5 while we only received coffee samples that were about 8 oz. or less. We didn’t feel that we received what we paid for. On the whole, whether you’re looking for a quiet place to study, or a cute place to take Instagram pictures, Zen Coffee has lots to offer.

We headed east from Zen towards 13th Street Coffee and Tea Company. 13th Street Coffee has been a staple in the Omaha coffee scene since 1991. When you walk in, you enter a Central Perk-esque scene. There are big comfy chairs in the loft, bookshelves along the walls and art for sale displayed throughout the store. Needless to say, 13th Street Coffee has the best vibes.

Additionally, they had a large fall drink menu offering seven items. We decided to order an iced “tasty, tasty, beautiful fear” which was a regular coffee flavored with cinnamon, pumpkin and marshmallow. For 20 oz, the coffee was moderately priced at about $6. Because it wasn’t espresso, the coffee taste was strong and the only flavor that you could really taste was the cinnamon. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it, and I wouldn’t recommend it. It ranked 2/5 for taste.

Sozo coffee menu

After 13th Street Coffee and Tea Company, we walked across the street to check out Sozo Coffeehouse. Sozo deems itself “Omaha’s largest basement” because the coffee shop itself is underground. This definitely adds to its cool vibe. Sozo is huge. It spans two large rooms with multiple couches, three study rooms, and a kitchen. They offer pool tables, board games, foosball and occasional Christian services. They are church affiliated, offering evening services each Thursday evening.

Just like 13th Street Coffee, Sozo also sported a large fall menu. After a fairly bitter tasting at 13th Street Coffee, we decided it was time to try something really sweet. We ordered a “Hello Kitty;” a caramel and hazelnut blended latte with whipped cream, sprinkles and a complimentary sticker. Though I can’t handle straight black coffee, I can’t quite handle a frappuccino either. I wasn’t a fan of the Hello Kitty, but Beal described it as a coffee milkshake. They did leave us with a Hello Kitty sticker, which was a redeeming quality for me. The coffee earned itself a 3/5 ranking.

Our fall coffee adventure came to a close after Sozo Coffeehouse. By the end of the journey, I was enlightened by the amount of options Omaha has to offer not only for coffee year round, but for those cozy fall drinks, too. While a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte will always be a staple, I encourage you to grab a friend (especially one with a superb chai palette like Beal), dress up in your favorite sweats and head to one of Omaha’s local coffee shops to explore their fall menu.

@zencoffeeco, @13thstreetcoffeeandtea, @sozoomaha

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