Smile Politely

Ancient Ales revived at Silvercreek

Last week was all about BBQ. Blues, Brews & BBQ dominated the weekend, but last Wednesday Silvercreek hosted a beer dinner with Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, Delaware). Dogfish Head is releasing the beers in its Ancient Ales series over the next few months, and through the magic of capitalism, we were lucky enough to have an Ancient Ales themed dinner in Central Illinois.

Most of the Ancient Ales were made with the help of Dr. Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. Dr. McGovern might have the best job in the world; with his help and because of his research, Dogfish Head is able to reimagine alcoholic beverages of ancient times. The limited-release series of beer includes Midas Touch (available year round), Chateau Jiahu, Theombroma, Ta Henket, Birra Etrusca Bronze, African te’j, Kvasir, and Sah’tea.

Silvercreek chef Stephanie Swisher put together three courses to pair with three ancient ales. Pastry chef (and sometimes-SP writer) Kaya DeFehr whipped up a dessert, too. This four course dinner took place in the greenhouse, and what a lovely, albeit slightly formal setting for a celebration of good beer and good food. Food writer Pamela Saunders and I arrived just before the 7 p.m. start time, and after flashing our wining smiles (and SP credentials), were led to the greenhouse. The table was crowded with plates, glasses, menus, and some killer party favors (Ancient Ales glass goblet/chalice, keychain, and ceramic coaster). There was a bar available for additional drinks, and people filtered into the greenhouse, lingering around the bar and looking for their assigned tables. (Tables were numbered, wedding style.)

The music was good, the atmosphere was lively, and Dogfish Head representative Zach Houlahan and chef Stephanie Swisher provided short but sweet introductions to the beers and dishes. There were even raffles for additional Dogfish Head swag (t-shirts and signs). Each beer was quite good, and overall the food was good, too. Some pairings worked better than others, and some dishes were more successful than others. My favorite course — no surprise here — was dessert. It was perfectly paired with the beer and just deliciously complex and sophisticated, yet accessible. The dinner was over within two hours, and the Silvercreek staff were nothing short of professional in attending to their guests and expediting the plates. The service alone would bring me back to the restaurant.

I spoke with Dogfish Head representative Zach Houlahan about the brewery and the Ancient Ales series, and you can check out our interview below. For Pam’s and my take on the dinner, scroll beyond the interview. (JH)

Smile Politely: Tell us a little about Dogfish Head Brewery.

Zach Houlahan: Dogfish is a family owned brewery, based in coastal Delaware. Sam and his wife Mariah, the founders, opened Delaware’s first brewpub in Rehoboth Beach in 1995. We’ve been making Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People ever since! The identity of Dogfish is a brewery that is constantly pushing the envelope to explore new styles and flavors. We make beers that are multi-dimensional, and many of our beers incorporate culinary ingredients. These make them especially fun to pair with food.

SP: What’s the story behind the Ancient Ales?

Houlahan: The Ancient Ales are a collaborative effort with our good friend, Dr. Pat McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Pat and Sam have a passion for recreating some of the first known fermented beverages from around the world. These beers incorporate flavors and ingredients that are found regionally. For example, the Chateau Jiahu, which is a beer based on a 9,000-year-old Chinese recipe, has hawthorn fruit in it. These beers celebrate our brewing ancestors and are even more fascinating when you tie in the historical aspect.

SP: What sort of foods (in addition to the ones served at the BBQ dinner) pair well with these beers?

Houlahan: All sorts of foods pair really well with the Ancient Ales series. These beers all have very unique flavor profiles and use everything from honey, to cocoa nibs, to lingonberries. While typically the pairings go the route of being complimentary to each other, these beers are awesome while paired using contrasting flavors, for example, Theobroma, which has cocoa nibs in it, paired with something salty or savory.

On our website,, we have recommended pairings and information about what foods pair with each of our beers, so consumers can experiment on their own.

SP: How about cooking with these beers? Any suggestions?

Houlahan: Beer works really well as a marinade. We’ve also seen people make reductions, sauces, and use beer as a braise for meats and vegetables. We even work with a really cool company called Brooklyn Brine, which makes Hop Pickles with us. The brine is made up of 60 Minute [IPA]. We encourage people to think outside of the box, and push the envelope of how people see beer and food, and how they intertwine the two of them.

SP: So, I’m guessing you aren’t really supposed to have a favorite, but which one is it, and why?

Houlahan: Everyone has a favorite! I like different beers for different occasions. Lately here in the Midwest, the humidity has been building. Midas Touch is made with muscat grapes, and honey, and is almost a hybrid between a mead and an Imperial Golden Ale. It’s very refreshing, so I’m reaching for one of those this time of year… Is it too early to crack one? Clock says yes.

SP: Where can we find these brews?

Houlahan: These beers are available in your local retailers who carry a variety of large format 750mL and 22 ounce offerings. We have a release calendar on our website, and a tool called Fish Finder. Fish Finder is awesome, because you can search a beer by zip code and see what retailers in your area have been shipped a specific beer within the last 90 days. If you’re looking for something limited, rare, and exclusive that’s a go-to tool.

SP: Anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?

Houlahan: This is such a fun industry, embodying friendship, bringing people together, and talking about what differentiates us. The Illinois craft beer scene is exploding right now, and we are constantly humbled by the continued support of our fans. We are all working to build a craft culture that Illinois can be proud of.


Appetizers: soft breadsticks and cheese

First things first: these weren’t technically on the evening’s menu, but as we arrived we were treated to soft breadsticks with hot cheese. And this wasn’t your average 7-Eleven hot cheese from a can (though I’ve eaten my fair share of that stuff); this was melt-y and rich and amazing. Bread and cheese is perhaps the most glorious beer pairing that I can think of. Having already covered that proverbial base ten minutes in, I was curious to see what other sorts of culinary delights the evening would bring. (PS)

These breadsticks were soft, buttery, and lovely all on their own. When paired with the molten cheese sauce, they were extra delicious. The cheese sauce was a perfectly executed mornay, and all in all a delightful way to kick off the evening. (JH)

One: Smoked Chicken Lettuce Wrap + Midas Touch
Boston butter lettuce, hoisin BBQ sauce, shredded chicken with peppers, onion, cilantro, peanuts and topped with fried rice noodles

Our first course was a smoked chicken lettuce wrap, paired with the Midas Touch beer. Full disclosure: I had almost finished my Midas Touch before the lettuce wraps arrived. It was a really nice beer, with a beautiful golden color and a certain sweetness that made it seem a little bit more special than your average ale. I heard Midas Touch described as a “mead/ale hybrid,” and I think that sounds about right. And if we are really in the spirit of disclosure, I wasn’t a huge fan of the smoked chicken lettuce wrap. The chicken was shredded but dense (like it had been packed in a can) and dry. It did have a great smoke flavor, though. I also thought the pairing was odd on a conceptual level. Lettuce wraps can be sweet (especially with a hoisin or teriyaki dipping sauce), and I would think you’d want a really dry, light beer to go with that. Midas Touch might have been a touch too sweet for this pairing. (PS)

This was my least favorite course. I agree with Pam about the oddness in the pairing; the sweetness of the beer (Midas Touch is a lovely, sweetly effervescent brew) and the hoisin sauce was just too much. I was also turned off by the texture of the lettuce wrap: the size of the fried rice noodles reminded me of little chicken bones and I couldn’t help but think that the chicken wasn’t properly de-boned and shredded. If you’ve ever eaten or seen canned salmon (the kind with the bones mixed in), you’ll know what I’m talking about. The presentation and colors on the plate were lovely, and I did enjoy the lightly pickled radishes. (JH)

Two: Smoked Rainbow Trout + Sah’tea
Citrus braised fennel and olive tapenade, fennel fronds garnish

The second course was a smoked trout with olive tapenade layered over fennel that had been sitting in citrus brine. The pairing on this one was the strange-yet-delightful Sah’tea Ale, based on a 9th century Finnish recipe. I tweeted that the Sah’tea tastes like a Yankee Candle, but in a good way. It had an earthy sweetness and spice to it (I think I detected cardamom or nutmeg), almost like a pumpkin pie. Yet, it wasn’t too heavy or loud. I would definitely drink this again. The food pairing wins my respect for its ambition alone. I am a huge fan of smoked fish, and I only wish there had been more of the trout. It had also sat in brine with brown sugar, so it was pretty sweet. I couldn’t get enough of that flaky texture. The fennel slice, however, was too thick. I think everyone should slice fennel thinly on a mandoline so the flavor really sings, but maybe that’s just me. The olive tapenade dominated the flavor profile (as olives tend to do), but each of the three components had a briny quality that meshed well. (PS)

This was the most ambitious dish of the night, and certainly the most sophisticated and complex in flavor and beer pairing. The nose on the Sah’tea was delightful—it reminded me of grape juice and tea (in a good way), and was earthy like chai tea or, as Pam mentioned, pumpkin pie. It paired very well with the components in the dish. I was able to get a little bit of fish that hadn’t been touched by the tapenade, and it was delicately sweet and smoky. The olive tapenade was delicious, but was just too aggressive with the fish. The fennel had a lovely citrus brine, but the thickness of the slice made it nearly impossible to cut and eat. The peppery arugula tied the earthiness of the beer to the rest of the dish. The textural shifts were quite enjoyable. I’d be willing to bet that the missteps in execution were related to serving 62 plates at the same time. (JH)

Three: Jerk Pork Ribs + Kvasir
House made BBQ sauce and smoked potato salad 

Our third course was jerk pork ribs and potato salad, paired with the Kvasir, based on an ancient Scandinavian recipe. The Kvasir by itself was pretty great; it had a tart cherry and peppery flavor to it, and was almost a rose gold color. The pork ribs were delicious, though they should have been way spicier and cooked so that they fell off the bone. Eating ribs at a fancy beer dinner with nary a lemon-scented wet nap in sight didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I had to visit the restroom to get cleaned up afterwards. That said, I gladly devoured them and wished I could have taken some home with me, maybe with a growler of that Kvasir. But let’s talk about the star of this course. That potato salad was the best thing I ate all week. The portion was generous, the potatoes were perfectly cooked, and I was too busy stuffing my face to hear what exactly was in the sauce (I am a serious food critic, after all) but I think I heard bacon and mustard and that’s all a girl pretty much ever needs to hear when it comes to potato salad. In true third-grade style, I liked that potato salad so much I would have married it. (PS)

The Kvasir might have been my favorite beer I had that night. It smelled only slightly sweet, but was crisp, tart, and fruity (without being sweet). It was a nice, bright beer and paired well with the robust flavors of the mustardy potato salad and smoky barbecue ribs. I agree with Pam that bone-in ribs may not have been the most elegant item to serve at this sort of dinner, but really I was only mildly embarrassed as I schmeared pork on my face. I think it was a bit of a stretch to call the ribs ‘jerk’ ribs, but they were quite tasty, with an appropriate balance of sweet and spicy. The potato salad was, as someone at our table described it, “da” (yes, someone actually said that). The potatoes were tender-crisp with the yummy skins left on. The scallions and bacon took the mustard dressing to the proverbial next level, contributing some smoke, crunch, and oniony sharpness. (JH)

Four: Ice Cream Sandwich + Theobroma
Toffee-walnut oatmeal cookies with vanilla malt ice cream and cranberry balsamic caramel

Guys, let’s establish one thing about dessert: you can never go wrong with an ice cream sandwich. This was a total home-run for me, especially the glaze that came drizzled all over the plate. My notes for that portion of the meal include “ICE CREAM SAMMY W/GLAAAAAAZE.” So, there’s that. The beer pairing was the Theobroma, which was tasty but sort of forgettable compared with the Kvasir or the Sah’tea. It was a nice pairing with the ice cream sandwich and the glaze, though, and a really smart departure from the usual oatmeal chocolate stout dessert beer situation. I think desserts at beer dinners are usually easy to do well if you keep it simple and give the people what they want. And the people are always going to want ice cream sandwiches.

The menu was designed to highlight ales from Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series. The guys at Dogfish Head paired up with a scholar at U Penn who works with archeological digs and ancient artifacts. Apparently ancient civilizations all over the world all had their own “beer” recipes, which Dogfish Head adapted and turned into the beers we drank that evening. An interesting premise, though I was somewhat skeptical for two reasons. First of all, I sincerely hope that no one thinks they are actually drinking what people drank in ancient Egypt. And since authenticity is neither desirable nor possible with a beer like this, the series risks becoming a gimmick. Ultimately, I think the Ancient Ales series redeemed itself by being consistently delicious and enjoyable to drink.

All in all, I had a really good time at this dinner and I was excited to check out the Ancient Ales series. (PS)
This was, hands-down, my favorite course of the night. I’m predictable, I know. The cookies were chewy and sweet, the ice cream malty and creamy, and the caramel glaze was perfectly sweet and ever-so-slightly-tangy from the balsamic and cranberries sitting on top. I was also a fan of the Theobroma, and its deep, orange Crush color. Dark chocolate notes hit the nose and initial sip, but the finish was smoky and spicy in the back of the throat. It was like eating chocolate-chipotle cookies, but without any overbearing sweetness. The slightly spicy beer paired perfectly with the malty ice cream and the complex caramel, and brought to the dessert course the requisite chocolate that most diners seek at the end of a meal. This was the perfect way to end a really wonderful evening. (JH)

You can find Dogfish Head beer by using the Fish Finder tool on the website. Silvercreek is located at 402 N Race St, Urbana and open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m., and Sunday 5-10 p.m.; and brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

All photos by Jessica Hammie. 

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