The end of the Italian adventure

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I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home in Italy, which made leaving quite a challenge.

After returning from Rome, we had time to go over the quantities sold and the net amount made from the event. This provided very good market research, and it was obvious which products people liked over the weekend, which served as a good indication of the types of beers to produce in the future.

It was then time to prepare for the biggest event in Arcidosso’s annual calendar, festival della castagna (the chestnut festival). Arcidosso is surrounded by mountains and nature. Walking through the woods upon leaving the village, as well as the vineyards and olive trees, it is hard to get away from chestnut trees. Mid-end October is the perfect time to enjoy them, so each village has a large chestnut festival, and Arcidosso’s is one of the biggest. Ordinarily the streets are filled with a handful of people scattered around; there are only around 2,000 inhabitants after all. But the chestnut festival attracts huge numbers of people, some of whom have travelled long distances to attend the event.

Several companies open up ‘cantinas’, small pop up shops which sell food and drink. As one of Birra Amiata’s main products is a chestnut beer, then this is obviously a key annual selling point which the company relies on in order to be sustainable through quieter months.  The event had been spoken about for some time, and production seemed to double in the lead up to the week as well as several hours spent organising and stocking the cantina.

The weekend didn’t disappoint; the streets full of tourists eager to eat chestnuts and enjoy the food, drink and music on offer. I personally had a fantastic time and it served as the perfect end to my Italian adventure. From a commercial point of view, I know that Birra Amiata did exceptionally well, which proved to be the icing on the cake for me.

It was with a heavy heart (and slightly sore head) that I embarked on my 11 hour journey back to the UK the following day. My trip involved buses, trains, lots of waiting around (making the most of the final sun I’d see in a few months) and a typically bumpy Ryanair flight.

Friends and family have since asked me what I learnt. They often phrase a question along the lines of ‘so you clearly enjoyed yourself, ate and drank a lot and met some great people, but did you actually learn anything which will be beneficial to your UK business’. I pause and reflect upon the question for a moment and realise how much I got out of it as a learning experience. I got to witness a full production operation in action, I saw the importance of a strong supply and distribution chain, I saw how they market their products and generate sales and I saw how they control cash flow and employ staff in a very difficult economic climate. When I then add the by-products of the trip: the fact that I sampled and now know what real spaghetti carbonara, pizza and coffee should taste like, that I learnt some incredible values which has changed my outlook on life and that I can now get by in Italian, then my answer is a resounding yes!

I genuinely believe that in my short time away in Italy, I learnt more about business than I ever did in education. That takes nothing away from some excellent lecturers, modules and content, but that proves a foundation, and in my opinion, the best way to experience business, life and to challenge yourself is to go to a country that you’ve never been to, with a language you don’t speak and work with a small business in the industry you want to work.

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When in Rome…


I’d been hugely enjoying my time in Arcidosso and had already learnt so much about the food and beverage industry, which I knew would put me in good stead for my return to the UK in terms of knowledge transfer.

But part of my decision to go to work in Italy was to travel and view other parts of the country. I’d already been fortunate enough to have that opportunity through work, visiting Pisa and Sienna among other places.

I very much wanted to visit Rome, and had started making plans to go for a weekend. However, my personal planning was cut short as I was asked if I wanted to attend an International beer festival called EurHop to promote Birra Amiata. We’d be going for 4 nights and I’d have the opportunity to sight-see and explore during the day, so this fell perfectly.

The premise for the festival is to have brewers from all over the world to meet and display their products in one large hall. People with an interest in beer then attend and sample the various types of beer on offer. I was very excited to be attending, but as had been the case for my stay thus far, I didn’t simply want to observe, but I wanted to get stuck in and immerse myself in the industry. I therefore asked what role I could play at the festival, and Gennaro, the owner, asked if I wanted to serve customers behind the bar. My bar tending experience is very limited; my part time job from the age of 16 had been a waiter at a Hilton Hotel, which very occasionally involved serving drinks to take to guests in the restaurant. Those who know me know that beer pouring is not a talent of mine, and that I tended to end up with a 50/50 split between beer and head. However, undeterred by these previous failings, and very keen to continue this adventure which meant getting out of my comfort zone as often as possible, I jumped at the chance. I was also heartened by the fact that in Europe, customers seem to expect a large amount of head on top of their beer.

The car journey from Arcidosso to Rome was breathtaking. The journey itself only took 2 hours and was very direct along a motorway. If you drive along a major motorway in Britain, you may get to see a few trees and service stations, but that’s about as exciting as it gets. However, on our journey south, we were surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and then for around 50 kilometres, were adjacent to the ocean. I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d seen the sea, and in these surroundings, with the sun shining down on us, it looked majestic.

We arrived at the festival, and it suddenly dawned on me how large this festival was. There were around 70 international brewers who were setting up. The first night of the event kicked off at 5pm, but we didn’t see too many customers until gone 11pm. The event closed around 3am, by which time everyone was ready to collapse. But we weren’t going back to our hotel quite yet. Instead we went to a pub where all the brewers gathered and sat down to chat, drink beer and eat spaghetti carbonara. This was certainly a first; I’d never sat down for a (sober) meal at 3.30am before! The tradition continued for the subsequent 2 nights when the festival was on.

I obviously managed to explore Rome, and stumbled across an incredible park at Flaminio metro station. The weather was beautiful, the city was picturesque – the perfect combination of new and old buildings and as always, the food was incredible.

I left Rome with a heavy heart, but had felt how much my Italian had improved, given that I was constantly serving Italian customers behind the bar…a real sink or swim moment. Learning about the industry had also taken a leap forward, but I was ready to get back to Arcidosso, where life seems so laid back it’s horizontal.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch