As I pull into the gravel parking lot of Crane Brewing in Raytown, Missouri, on a hot Saturday in August, I spy a 375-gallon offset smoker kicking off a faint trickle of smoke. I step inside the brewery and work my way past the bar area and across the production floor and eventually take my place in line with the small crowd gathered in the barrel room, flanked by giant, wooden vats of beer. I was ready for my first taste of Harp Barbecue. Owner Tyler Harp dons an apron and positions himself behind a cutting board, ready to slice ribs and brisket to order.
Tyler has been around Kansas City barbecue as far back as he can remember. "My favorite memories of being a child are playing baseball and being at barbecue contests with my dad, six to eight times a summer," he tells me.
Tyler doesn't compete like his father once did, but he credits the barbecue circuit with showing him how much work went into making great barbecue. “The competition scene is money and politics. I had neither. So I'd sit my ass in the driveway and cook,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to carve out my own path. So I didn't want to compete for that reason.”
The first offset smoker Tyler bought was 150 gallons, big enough to fit about six briskets or 10 pork butts. It was attached to a rickety trailer that Tyler needed to repair halfway home. The first day he fired it up, he sold pork butts to his small following and made a little more than $300 on a smoker he'd just bought for $400. “That's when I realized I could start making money on barbecue.”
Tyler cooked barbecue in his driveway for three years. “If I wasn't traveling to cook or learn [about barbecue], I maybe took four weekends off in those three years,” he says. “Even if we were just selling one or two pork butts, a couple briskets, or a couple slabs of ribs, I knew that we would continue to evolve our skills. If you put in the work and you have a positive attitude, I think you can make anything happen.”
In 2016, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn wrote an article that Tyler thought cast an unfavorable view of Kansas City barbecue. This prompted Tyler and his dad to travel to Texas to taste their barbecue firsthand. At that point, says Tyler, “we were in the beginning stages of developing our style. I didn't know what our style was going to be, but I knew I wanted to travel and learn to create that style.” It was during that trip to Texas that Tyler says, “it all kinda came together. The way I cooked, the way I liked to cook, it just really aligned with the way [Texans] cooked—offset smokers, wood, a few simple ingredients.”
Although Tyler has great respect for Texas barbecue, he feels that Kansas City offers more variety and the rules of what's considered right and wrong are less rigid. He considers his contribution to be “craft barbecue,” which to him means it's cooked fresh every day using only wood and then cut to order. “I try to put something on [the menu] that basically you can't get anywhere else here in the barbecue world. We've done pastrami, beef cheeks, oxtail, pork jowl.”
He tells me he eventually wants to have a top-tier barbecue place that everyone can be proud of, where everyone can say, “yeah, that's Kansas City right there,” but feels he still has a long way to go. “Everything I've done in the last five years was for barbecue. I knew that one day all the money I invested into it would come back. My barbecue has never been about me. It's always been about Kansas City.”