Last year, Dennis Kistner came face-to-face with a dilemma many new parents know all too well: He was tired of reading the same stories to his son, Little Dennis.
“We always read the same ones,” Kistner, a Dundalk native, said last week inside the Canton bar he manages, Mahaffey’s Pub. “Some books you just get in a rut with. You don’t want to read about the same train caboose.”
The epiphany came in the shower. Kistner, who “despised English” as a student, decided he’d write his own children’s book about a topic dear to him — beer. In a spurt of inspiration, Kistner created Hophead Harry, a grinning character interested in how beer is made.
Kistner knew others would react with raised eyebrows — beer and kids, really? — but in “Hophead Harry Goes to the Brewery,” his first book, Kistner decided to focus entirely on the production process.
“Obviously, there’s not any drinking involved in the book,” the 30-year-old said. “The book could be anything, from making cookies to learning how to make coffee, but it just so happens it’s beer characters.”
In August 2015, after the initial idea, Kistner would find brief moments — usually while his son napped — to write the story at his computer. In the process of turning a “super rough draft” into a fully realized, rhyming story, Kistner understood why, maybe, he couldn’t find similar tales — explaining this stuff to kids isn’t easy.
“I think probably the most obscure word in there is sparge — talking about how the grains are rinsed,” he said. Kistner made sure to surround words like “sparge” and “wort” with context clues so anyone could follow along.
The self-published, 30-page book was released in July and can be purchased either at Mahaffey’s or at amazon.com. So far, around 200 copies have been sold, Kistner said.
Edited by a Mahaffey’s regular, Chandler Vicchio, it features illustrations from another employee — bartender Beth-Ann Wilson, a Long Island, N.Y., native who came to the area years ago to study painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
While she loved drawing and doodling since she was a kid, Wilson hadn’t done much illustration work. The Highlandtown resident wanted a crack at it anyway, and decided to take a local brewing class to learn more about the process. She was not used to drawing brewing equipment like mash tuns and fermenters.
“That was definitely the hardest part for me,” Wilson, 33, said. “Drawing the characters and coloring them, that came surprisingly easy.”
The world of Hophead Harry is filled with bright colors and characters — including Bobby Barley, Mary Malts and Brewmaster Brooks — that appear inviting and friendly. From transforming barley into malt to transferring beer into kegs for delivery, the story emphasizes teamwork and following directions.
Even though the book is filled with teetotalers, not everyone believes the topic is appropriate for kids, Kistner said. He’s approached national beer organizations and catalog companies about selling the book, but “they don’t want to go there,” he said.
When it comes to pitching it to a Mahaffey’s patron, though, it often takes just one flip through the book, according to Wilson.
“After people see it and read it, and see [the characters] are all smiling and not wasted, then it’s like, ‘Who can I get this for?’” she said.
The best reward, Kistner said, is hearing from people who bought the book on a whim and then find themselves returning to it each night.
“A guy came in yesterday and said he’s read the book the past five nights to his daughter because that’s the one she wants to read,” he said.
For Kistner, the ultimate judge remains Little Dennis, who turned 2 in August. (Kistner is married to Mahaffey’s manager Alice Kistner.) Dad confirmed he’s a fan of the book, particularly Wilson’s drawings.
Kistner said he and Wilson are open to a sequel — maybe Harry and his friends learn to make wine, he wondered aloud — if the opportunity presents itself.
In the meantime, Kistner hopes to get the book for sale in local taprooms and home-brewing stores. And on Oct. 10, Mahaffey’s will host a reading, along with arts and crafts, as a part of Baltimore Beer Week. (For parents, the bar will celebrate with a special cask-edition beer by Laurel’s Jailbreak Brewing Co. in honor of the book.)
The hope is to get “Hophead Harry” in as many hands as possible. But is there a greater plan at work? Is this an elaborate project designed to put Little Dennis on the path to one day becoming a brewmaster?
Kistner smirks at the question.
“If Little Dennis grows up and starts making beer — that would be awesome,” he said.