Matt Ragan of Victor Tangos.

Distinguished Drinker: Matt Ragan Knows Beer

Victor Tangos' brew expert gives us a serious education.

I’d like to make a proposal to all universities: a degree program in the History of Beer. And no, I’m not referring to some advanced version of beer pong or flip cup or whatever the new thing is these days. Think I’m crazy? Then I recommend you walk over to Victor Tangos and request to speak with Matthew Ragan. After sipping on a few different craft beers and listening to Matt discuss different brewing methods and how certain beer-making traditions were passed down to us, you might think differently. I’m speaking from recent experience here, and while I’m still waiting on the results from my final exam, I’d say my empty beer bottle is a pretty good indication of a passing grade. Matt has two goals with his beer program at Victor Tangos: develop the best small collection of European craft beers in Dallas, and be approachable and humble in the process. So buckle down, Dallas! Get out your notebooks, sharpen your pencils, and take a few pointers from the expert.

RH: I guess I don’t really need to ask the question, but beer, right? I’m told that you are trying to develop a very unique collection of beer here.

MR: My overall goal, and perhaps it is overly ambitious, is to build the best little beer list in the city. We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re between The Libertine Bar, Meddlesome Moth and The Common Table. So, I’m looking to find our own little niche, and this restaurant is uniquely positioned with the food, the environment, and the overall ambiance to do that. We’re positioned to build a very small, focused list and train our staff well so that we can help expose people to something they may never have tasted. You know, for some people maybe stepping out of the box for them is doing a Fireman’s 4 instead of a Bud Light. If you come in and you look at our beer list, you’re going to find things that maybe you recognize, but most of the things are fairly unique. There are things here you won’t find at most other places. Since it is a little more focused, we can hone in on certain things that are more obscure, more esoteric, things that get lost in a 300- or 400-bottle list.

That has been our focus, and we want to share our love and knowledge. When you’re going for something esoteric or different, it can be challenging. Often you can come off as pretentious. The reason we focus so much on training is so that we can explain our list well. We don’t want our list to be something that people can’t approach. If you just look at a menu and don’t know anything on it and no one explains it to you, then you feel like the people serving you are just trying to be pretentious. Instead, we just want to share our excitement and joy. I think if we start with this mindset, the experience becomes something different for our guests. I have an earnest desire to share something that I find to be fun, interesting, and wonderful. It is something that has enriched my life.

RH: When you start developing your list, what is your end goal? Is it just to complement the menu or is there something else you are going for? How do you focus your collection?

MR: I think there are a few complementary priorities. One, it’s nice to showcase something that is being done in the area and there are a few breweries that are fun to showcase. Pairing with food is a big one, too. So you’ll see a lot of saisons and sour ales. A lot of our food is bright, fresh and acid-driven. So I’m looking for beers that are bright, fresh, and have some acidity to them. If you can suspend the idea of beer as malty, we can show you something entirely new that you have never tried. Suspend that mindset and think balsamic and sour cherries. Sour ales are the best thing to drink in the summer when it is 100 degrees outside.

RH: Sour cherries?

MR: Yeah, you want to try one?

RH: Sure! Because I definitely think of beer as malty.

MR: Absolutely. People have been brewing beers as long as they’ve been making wines, though. So there is a lot of variety. The first evidence we have of beer is in 5000 BC in Iran. We know we’ve been brewing some form of beer for that long. This is my go-to if you want to discover sour beers for the first time: The Duchesse de Bourgogne. It is so approachable once you have a frame of reference for it.

RH: What is a sour ale? I’ve never heard that term before.

MR: That tradition of sour beers came to us from Belgium. There are two disparate brewing traditions in Belgium. One comes to us from the monasteries and the monks. That is where you get the trappist ales, dubbels, triples and quadruples. The second tradition comes to us from farmhouse ales. I’m being fairly reductive right now, but for the sake of being reductive, there are these farmhouse ales that very simple farmers were brewing for potable water. These farm sours, saisons, beer de gardes all come to us from that brewing tradition. Obviously there is a lot of crossover, but we can think of them in these two terms. The Duchesse comes to us from that second tradition. When they were first brewing at this time, they didn’t know what yeast was. They didn’t identify it until Louis Pasteur. Even though they didn’t know what it was at this time, there was a yeast called brettanomyces, which is a yeast strain that gives these farmhouse ales, and especially the saisons, an earthiness. For me, the Duchesse is a wine drinker’s beer. It’s got a lot of acid and some nice fruity notes, which come from the brettanomyces.

The other element that affects these beers is a lactobacillus, which is a bacteria, and it likes to take protein and turn it into lactic acid. It gives the beer creaminess and also an acidity. With this beer, they intentionally ferment it and then they leave it out in these big, open, shallow boxes in these rafters. Then all these different microbes are getting at it. After, they take it and age it in barrels. In these barrels it gets exposed to lactobacillus and it gets exposed to malic acid. So, you’re getting all these different acids that are developing through the barrel aging. Then they take different years and blend them in with each other so you get a consistent product. It takes several years to make these beers. These styles are centuries and centuries old. In America, these types of beer weren’t really popular until the 1990’s. Then you see this beer movement start up in California and Colorado. All these styles, which were almost extinct, started coming back. This craft beer movement made us want to find old recipes and ancient styles and recreate them.

RH: Would you say the better beers all come from these ancient traditions?

MR: Well, I love history, if you can’t tell, so I want to put together beer lists that have many funky, smaller-name European breweries. I love the opportunity to demystify them. I also try to bring in a lot of seasonality in my selection of beers. We always try to keep a stout or two on tap. Our taps are always pretty approachable. We always have one rotator. Right now that is a double IPA.

RH: What is the name of that one?

MR: It’s called Café Racer from Bear Republic. Before that we were doing this beer called Ambai from Hitachino Nest. This is an ancient style of German wheat beer that the Japanese just add plum to. Hitachino just resurrected this, and they love these little things called Umeboshi Mints. They are just these power-packed salty things that tastes like plum. We just look for fun offerings with our taps. We also have three local beers right now. I love Revolver, which is a brewery in Granbury, Texas. Their beer, Blood and Honey, is great. And then we have Fireman’s 4, which is great because people know it. Some people don’t want to come out and be challenged. They want to drink what they know, and I want to also be able to offer that to them too.

RH: Is there a beer that you recently discovered? One that you hadn’t previously known about?

MR: I would say, Rubus from Birra del Borgo. It’s an Italian brewery. That beer is a sour ale fermented with raspberries. It’s awesome. It’s funky and earthy. It’s just a really fun beer. I recently got exposed to that from a good friend, Alan Simants, who runs the beer program at CBD. He exposed me to this, and it is a beautiful beer. The Italians were late to this craft brewing thing. They used to just do pretty clean lagers previously, and so they were late to the craft beer movement. Rubus, though, is a great beer! It’s got a lot of character!

RH: So where is a place in Dallas that you would go on a night out?

MR: Strangeways is my jam. That is my favorite place! They are super chill. It is very easy going. I also like Lark on the Park and CBD. Alan does a great job at CBD. I tend toward Old World and European-type beers, and Alan tends toward regional and Texas beers. So, we complement each other well.

RH: It’s not quite the fall yet, but once that time rolls around, what sort of beers will you be looking to showcase?

MR: The beer I am most excited about is Timmermans’ Pumpkin Lambicus. Timmermans is a Belgium brewery. This beer is life-changing, it is so good. It has all of those spice notes that you love about pumpkin ales and lagers, but because it is a lambicus, there is a souring and an aging. It’s so stupid expensive, but I am literally counting down the days until that keg comes in. That’ll be fun, I’m really excited for it.