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Blast from the past: Rapp’s Barren owners deliver on bringing gastropub to downtown Mountain Home

Hobbies sometimes have an interesting way of changing a person’s life. They start small, usually done in a garage or a spare room in a home.

Then the obsession starts. The hobby goes from a part-time thing for fun to a passion. It pushes you out of your comfort zone while driving you to find others with the same passion. It forces you to climb to new heights and perfect techniques.

It almost always changes your life.

That’s what happened to Russell Tucker, Chris Gordon, and Kyle Swallow when they started homebrewing beer in their garages a decade ago. They picked up brewing for fun, after being introduced to the popular pastime by family and friends.

Little did they know they would come together and end up owning Mountain Home’s flagship brewery, Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company.

“We were homebrewers and friends on multiple, different levels,” said Russell Tucker, co-owner of Rapp’s Barren. “It was one of those hobbies that we enjoyed together. It was born out of a passion for the brewing science, combined with a passion for community that really pushed us to start something of our own. We had never owned our own business before.”

Tucker’s passion for home brewery started after his friend and neighbor introduced him to the hobby in 2008. A native to the Ozarks, he worked diligently in his garage on honing his craft before finally being introduced to fellow owner Chris Gordon in 2011.

The pair became quick friends and began perfecting their craft together.

Originally from Southern California, Gordon began home brewing after moving to Arkansas in 2011. Much like Tucker, he was introduced to homebrewing by a friend.

After becoming hooked, he asked his wife’s uncle and aunt, longtime homebrewers themselves, for tips and advice.

As the two men’s friendship and passion for beer began to grow, the idea of starting a business began to form. In 2017, Tucker and Gordon decided to step up and take a risk that would forever alter their lives.

Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company was born.

“The name is the original settlement of our community,” Tucker said. “We started thinking about what we wanted this business to be. Community was at the very core of who we are and what we wanted to create. So, why not go back to the roots of this area, where this territory started, which was Rapp’s Barren. That launched into this really cool study of the history of the community and what it means to be a part of this community.”

The pair quickly set up shop at 1343 Highway South, the brewery’s old location, before moving into the historic Baker Building in downtown Mountain Home.

With only a taproom and a food truck, the company took off and began to boom as the Mountain Home community embraced the young entrepreneurs.

“We didn’t really know what to expect,” Tucker said. “We thought, hey, let’s just give it a shot and see what happens. The community responded overwhelmingly positive toward what we did, and from there, it just became this massive relationship-building opportunity that launched into all kinds of things.”

Those relationship-building opportunities would pay off a year later when Tucker and Gordon were introduced to Kyle Swallow at the Twin Lakes Home Brewers Club, where he presided as president.

Chris Gordon (left), Russell Tucker (center) and Kyle Swallow (right) stand in front of Rapp’s Barren’s Mountain Home mural. The mural was painted in by artist Corey McMahon in September. Photo by Chris Fulton/MHO.

Swallow’s story was similar to both Tucker’s and Gordon’s. He picked up the craft in 2009 after moving to Arkansas to work for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Originally from Southeast Missouri, Swallow fell in love with craft beer as a young man. His move to Mountain Home, where craft brews were rare at the time, sent him down the path of becoming Rapp’s Barren’s head brewer.

After meeting Tucker and Gordon, Swallow was asked to make his “Light’s Out Black IPA” at the brewery, leading to a part-time gig. By 2019, the three men were fast friends, and Swallow was brought on board as a partner.

“He started sharing that he would be interested in brewing commercially for a living, and we knew that this could be a really good fit,” Tucker said.

The Rapp’s Barren family was complete.

The three friends threw themselves into their business, producing beers like the 1810 Cream Ale, Twin Lakes Imperial Stout, Shay’s Shandy, Hoppuccini and more.

“We made 60 beers so far,” said Kyle Swallow. “We have 16 taps, and two of those are for sodas, so we have 14 beers available at any given time. If we have vacant taps, we’ll put on guest beers from other Arkansas breweries because we’re keeping it super local. We’re on track for 300 barrels this year. One barrel is 31 gallons, so that’s close to 9,000 gallons. Our brew house is a five-barrel a day system.”

The friend’s food truck was also a success, with customers pouring outside to grab a bite to eat after getting a beer in the taproom. And while many would sit back and soak in the success, the owners of Rapp’s Barren had their sights set on setting up Mountain Home’s first official gastropub.

With that thought in mind, Rapp’s Barren purchased the old Baker Building on the square and began renovating in 2020.

“We knew that moving into food was inevitable, but we didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like until we really started getting into it,” Tucker said.

Renovating the building was a difficult and time-consuming task. The crew knew the historical significance of the building to the town and set out to renovate the building in the right way.

They started by reusing the original wood in the building by turning it into the railings and tabletops through the pub. Steel supports were then added to the structure to ensure the old building could handle the increase in traffic.

After discovering bottles beneath the Baker Building during its remodeling, Rapp’s owners decided to place the bottles in gaps in the brick above the bar. A fun secret for observant guests at the gastropub. Photo by Chris Fulton/MHO.

The crew also built a balcony overlooking the downtown square. The front wall of the building was made with a mixture of the original brick and “new” bricks from a demolished building in St. Louis that was built during the same era.

Glass bottles under the floorboards were placed above the bar between some open gaps in the brick, a fun secret for those paying attention. The old window weights were converted into the lighting fixture above the staircase.

“It’s been a lot of things,” said Tucker about the building. “Clothing store was the last thing that it was. When you’re going from that to a full-on brewery and restaurant, there’s a significant amount of change that has to happen. It’s difficult.”

Rapp’s Barren’s renovations to the Baker Building included using reusing the buildings original wood to create furniture and decorations. Photo by Chris Fulton/MHO.

As their grand downtown opening approached in June, the Rapp’s team looked to Michael Blaha to become their head chef. They wanted someone who could make fresh dishes that matched the quality of their beer. 

A Minnesota native, Blaha graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts before working at Norwegian Cruise Lines and Prom Catering. He would join the catering company’s golf team and cook food for PGA and USGA golf tournaments.

He and his wife would join Rapp’s Barren after moving to Mountain Home for a simpler life.

“The opportunity came along to become executive chef, and I had to jump at it,” Blaha said. “I‘d have complete creative control, and the owners were great people. After working with them for eight months now, I love them. They’re great guys to work with.”

The pub’s unique beers and dishes were a success, cementing the brewery as one of the top breweries in Arkansas.

With Rapp’s Barren fully open and complete, Tucker, Gordon, and Swallow are focused on perfecting their pub experience before attempting to expand into new markets. They’ve also turned their attention to the community that’s helped turn their hobby into a dream career.

“I think there’s just a heart of gratitude that we have because, without a shadow of a doubt, we would not be where we are today and be able to invest in our community if it wasn’t for the investment the community made into us,” Tucker said. “We’re just very grateful for everyone’s patronage over the last four years.”

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