I became aware of Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea when I discovered the Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar inside my office building at River Point North. Although Infuse runs in-house coffee bars, the staff told me about Fairgrounds, Infuse’s sister company which runs cafés. That was in 2017, when Infuse had just opened, although it’s taken me another 2½ years before I’ve managed to visit Fairgrounds, although for once I’ve done it right, visiting its Bucktown location, which, like Infuse, opened in 2017, along with another Fairgrounds in The Loop.
Although it started in Chicago, Fairgrounds now has cafés in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Los Angeles to join the (currently) three Chicago locations, plus two more in the suburbs. They all have the same mission, which is shared with Infuse: to serve a wide range of excellent coffee on espresso and filter, plus cold brew, nitro brew, various elixirs and tea. To this end, there’s a blend, decaf and rotating single-origin on espresso, plus three more blends, a further three single-origins and a decaf on pour-over, sourced from roasters across America. If you’re hungry, Fairgrounds had an all-day breakfast menu, sandwiches, salad bowls and soup, plus various snacks, bites and cake.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea is on Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago’s great corridor of speciality coffee running northwest out of The Loop. Easily accessible by public transport, it’s around the corner from the Blue Line’s Damen Station. And before any Chicagoans give me grief, although Fairgrounds refers to it as Bucktown, I’m pretty sure it’s in (northern) Wicker Park!
Location pedantry aside, it’s a lovely spot on the southwest side of the street, occupying a wide, tall unit with five floor-to-ceiling windows stretching along the front, with a pair of recessed glass double doors on the left. These lead to a bright interior, which only really catches the sun in the morning, when large shades above the windows come into play.
Inside, it’s maybe half as deep as it is wide, and half as tall again, with a wonderful sense of space. The counter occupies the rear half, running along maybe three-quarters of the back wall, starting at the right. The seating, in contrast, is at the front, along with a 12-person communal table directly ahead of you as you enter, tucked in at the back to the counter’s left. You can also sit on one of four barstools at the counter’s left-hand end, next to the Modbar pour-over system.
A single, eight-person window-bar spans the first three windows to the right of the door, with fixed, round stools. Behind this, two large sofas face the window, each with three square tables in front of them, chairs on the other side. Finally, beyond a brick pillar and occupying the last two windows, is a cosy seating area. There are a pair of armchairs, backs to the window, facing a three-person sofa across a low coffee table, with an old-fashioned stove against the right-hand wall.
The counter is cleverly screened off from seating by a long set of shelves further screened by a series of ivy plants (which I suspect are artificial) cascading down from the top. To reach the counter, you walk along between the shelves and the back of the sofas, then double back on yourself to walk in front of the counter. The shelves, meanwhile, are lined with retail bags of coffee, various items of kit, and boxes of tea.
A chiller cabinet stands against the wall to the right of the counter, beyond which is the enclosed kitchen, just visible through the serving hatch. The counter itself starts with the cake display, followed by the taps for the nitro/cold brew, then comes the till, with the large menu on the wall behind. Finally, there’s the La Marzocco Strada espresso machine, beyond which is a row of six Modbar pour-over modules at the counter’s left-hand end, each with its own dedicated grinder on the back wall. You also collect your coffee here, so you watch the Modbars in action while you wait.
Fairgrounds is a veritable cornucopia of coffee, inspired by founder Michael Schultz’s desire for a coffee shop like a pub, with a range of beers available. For coffee, this translates to roasters, with the Toro blend from Colectivo ever-present on espresso, joined by Unwind (a decaf from Nashville’s Frothy Monkey), and a rotating single-origin, which, during my visit, was a Guatemalan Huehuetenango from local roasters, Gaslight.
There’s even more choice on the brew bar, starting with three blends: Colectivo’s Black & Tan, The 1950s from Verve in Santa Cruz and the latest seasonal blend from Chicago’s Dark Matter. These are joined by the Unwind decaf and three single-origins, one each from Chicago’s Four Letter Word and Gaslight, plus Portland’s Stumptown. The specific single-origins (including on espresso) change roughly weekly, while if you can’t choose, Fairgrounds offers a flight option, where you can compare any three from the brew bar.
I started with a cortado, made with Gaslight’s Guatemalan Huehuetenango, a fruity coffee that went well with the milk to produce a rich, complex drink. I followed that with a Burundi single-origin pour-over from Four Letter Word, a new roaster to me. This improved as it cooled, its fruity flavours really starting to shine as it got cold. Finally, I had the scrambled egg sandwich for lunch, a toasted English muffin over-flowing with scrambled egg and red peppers.
|1620 NORTH MILWAUKEE AVENUE • CHICAGO • IL 60647 • USA|
|Monday||06:30 – 20:00||Roaster||Guests (espresso + filter)|
|Tuesday||06:30 – 20:00||Seating||Breakfast, Lunch, Cake|
|Wednesday||06:30 – 20:00||Food||Breakfast,|
|Thursday||06:30 – 20:00||Service||Counter|
|Friday||06:30 – 20:00||Payment||Cards + Cash|
|Saturday||07:30 – 20:00||Wifi||Free|
|Sunday||07:30 – 20:00||Power||Limited|
|Chain||National||Visits||15th March 2020|
If you enjoyed this Coffee Spot, then take a look at the rest of Chicago’s speciality coffee scene with the Coffee Spot Guide to Chicago.
March 2020: Although I’ve written this as a normal Coffee Spot, my visit to Fairgrounds was anything but normal. I’d arrived in Chicago the night before, flying in from Atlanta at a point when the world still felt fairly normal. Even so, Fairgrounds was taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19, only serving drinks in disposable cups (which I then poured into my own cups) and serving food in to-go cardboard containers.
By the end of that day, the Governor of Illinois had announced the closure of all bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes except for takeaway customers in response to the COVID-19 crisis and I made the decision to return home.
Please note that the opening times are Fairgrounds’ normal hours. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the shop is closed.
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