Photographer Matt Coats reveals how a simple portrait project evolved into Self Distributed.

How did Self Distributed come about?

I wanted to take portraits of people I know, so my first stop was Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. to shoot Chris Prout and Erik Olsen, who are longtime friends of mine. They led me to Justin Kennedy, the beer writer for Savuer magazine. He really liked the photos and thought there might be an opportunity to feature them somewhere.

A couple weeks later he reached out to ask if I could photograph the guys from Other Half Brewing as they drove around and delivered beer, and maybe I could squeeze another portrait in along the way. Justin produces the Beer Sessions Radio show hosted by Jimmy Carbone (of Jimmy’s no. 43 restaurant) and thought it might make a good story to go out and experience the entire process.

Somewhere along the line Complex Media’s new food blog, First We Feast, got involved and off I went with the Other Half Brewing guys while they delivered beer. It was a great project. I got to see the physicality of the job, the double-parking, and the drama of kegs being stolen by distribution company drivers hungry for scrap metal.

What led you to continue with the project after the Other Half Brewery ride along?

I already had a list of brewers I wanted to shoot, and they all happened to be self distributors. I talked with Josh Whitehead from Brouwerij Lane in Greenpoint about other breweries self distributing and got the comprehensive list. From there, we decided to collaborate on a solo show where they would pour beers from all the breweries I shot. All of this talked about over beers, of course.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about self distribution?  

The determination these guys have to keep doing it everyday. I wouldn’t have lasted a week! The distribution job is so demanding and brewers often balance families and full-time careers alongside it. Take Transmitter, for instance. You have Anthony, Rob, and Tanya solely responsible for putting out one of the best contemporary beers while simultaneously working 40+ hours a week at their “real” jobs.

What was it like photographing the breweries?

EVERYTHING IS ROUND AND SHINY. Breweries are tough to shoot in – everything reflects, and it doesn’t help to have “sampled” a bit before starting. The variances of the breweries were in the amount of beer they could produce. Some were more analog in their systems. Some had computers controlling temperatures. But at the end of the day differences in equipment lead to the same result – it’s the brewmaster who brings it all together.

What was important for you to capture in your images, and how did you work to photograph something as intangible as the self distribution process?

First and foremost I wanted to do portraits of the people involved in making these particular beers happen. Owners, brewers, helpers, interns, drivers…all of them. It was important for me to try to catch moments of who these people are. In most cases I had tried their beers only once or twice in the past, but I came into the project with a huge respect for their craft. And they’re human, and for me humans are easier to photograph than soulless machines. Which, having never spent any time with one, I’m sure distributors are.

Another intention was to do portraits of people who rarely, if ever, have their portraits taken. I like the challenge of interacting with the subject, of shooting people who are drenched with sweat and stressing about how long it will be before they need to add more hops to their boil.

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