Sniper shot led to couple choosing brews over news
When a sniper's bullet clipped the scalp of broadcast technician Mark Smith as he stood in Tripoli's Green Square during the final days of Gaddafi's regime, it seemed a clear indication it was time to find a safer walk of life. Years of working in international television news had taken him and wife Janna Sanders, a specialist events manager in the industry, to war zones and disaster areas all over the world, but the frightening incident had them firmly longing for home.
With Mark's head patched up and the couple safely back in Devon, the question of what to do with themselves reemerged. Real ale fan Mark had long nurtured a desire to try making his own, something Janna's brother Nathan Sanders had been doing as a hobby for many years. Nathan willingly came onboard as head brewer and, after much research and training, the idea became a viable business.
With Janna and Nathan both growing up in Tavistock, and she and Mark now living in the village of Peter Tavy, they wanted a brand with a strong tie to the area. Taking inspiration from the river that gives both locations their names, Tavy Ales was born.
After taking over an industrial unit in Roborough and fitting it out into a six-barrel plant, the first test brew was carried out in May last year. July saw their first commission from popular Dartmoor pub The Elephant's Nest Inn, which has had Nellie's Best bitter on tap ever since. Two other Tavy Ales are also on sale around the Westcountry and in the last few months the range of bottled beers – which are naturally carbonated through yeast in the bottle – have grown in popularity.
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Mark, 42, described the moment he knew he was ready to hang up his flak jacket: "I was with some colleagues with the rebels on the frontline," he said. "It was the week that Tripoli fell, we pushed in with them and found ourselves in Green Square. We set up our equipment and then, because it was Ramadan, most of the people left and it became quite quiet.
"I took my body armour off and was about 20m from the truck when a bullet whizzed by and clipped my scalp. It was possibly a sniper because there was just one shot. It took a couple of millimetres of my skin.
"I touched my head and there seemed to be nothing wrong, and then ten seconds later there was blood everywhere.
"The rebels took me to get it seen to – I was surrounded by people with terrible injuries and felt incredibly lucky really. But it did strengthen my feeling that something needed to change."
Janna, 40, added: "The last few years had been less and less enjoyable. Always having to be ready to go is a strain and I was in London more than I was travelling. We bought our house in Devon in 2005, but just weren't getting enough time here together. We were like ships in the night."
She explained that "ever since I can remember" her brother had been experimenting with full mash home brewing "and it seemed like something we could make a go of".
"He is the expert of the three of us and we all muck in," she explained.
The couple, who met while covering the Pope's visit to Guatemala, say the transition from exotic locations to the hard graft of brewing and delivering their handcrafted beer was fairly smooth. Mark said: "I'm a real fan of real ale so the idea instantly appealed to me, but we needed to make sure it was a goer. After a lot of searching around, Nathan and I attended a course at the Brew Lab in Sunderland, which is very well known in the industry."
Janna said: "Every month we get a few more pubs taking Tavy Ales. The key is to get the name out there and get people trying it. Our ethos is simple: if the beer is good you should be able to sell it. We're working on promoting the bottles now too, getting them into restaurants and country hotels that don't use casks."
Their 4.3% Tavy Best Bitter has been branded as "Nellie's Best" for The Elephant's Nest and is selling well. Pub owner Hugh Cook said: "It has been very encouraging. We can sell any beer once – if you put a barrel on people will drink it – but it's about people coming back and asking for it again, and that's the case with Nellie's Best. It's been popular."
Locals Mark and Janna were already friendly with the restaurant after getting married there one stormy day in 2009.
Tavy Best is made with two English hops – Fuggles and East Kent Goldings – and is brewed for eight hours before being fermented out for three days. It then goes into a secondary vessel and matures and improves over another week. The beer can be in the pub from about two weeks after the brew day.
The microbrewery's second ale is the 5.2% Tavy Porter, a dark stout beer with a roasted bittersweet flavour and an "intense chocolate finish". Their third beer, a 4.8% IPA called Tavy Ideal Pale Ale, will be in pubs in the next couple of weeks. Each logo features a different stylish retro image of the River Tavy.
Both Mark and Janna still take on the odd job within the television industry, but are mainly focused on the ale. As to whether they miss the excitement of their former occupations, Janna said: "Like anything, when you're not doing it you look back fondly. Some jobs were so much fun, like the rescue of the Chilean miners, which we were both working on. It would have been a very different story if they hadn't got them out, but as it was the atmosphere was amazing."
The pair have also worked together covering the war in Iraq, the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka and in fairly terrifying circumstances during Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Other memorable assignments include Mark taking a five-day boat trip to the remote island of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean to cover the first sunset of the millennium, and Janna being in the thick of the action in Washington for President Obama's first inauguration.
They are refreshingly honest in their outlook, and well aware of the risks of launching a new business amidst a recession. Mark said: "We're still at the stage where we're not 100% sure it will be successful enough to continue with, but that's because we're not yet one year old."
Janna added: "There's definitely a resurgence in the real ale market and a big craft beer movement sweeping the world. That in itself is hopeful for us. It is a crowded market, particularly down here, but hopefully there's still room for us."
For more information visit www.tavyales.co.uk.