EOU prof believes beer can boost economy

June 19, 2013 01:53 pm

LA GRANDE — Jeff Dense gets the question all the time:  what makes a political science professor at Eastern Oregon University so interested in beer?

Dense admits a personal interest in the subject, one that extends easily into his academic life.  Beer relates to taxation, globalization, politics, and economic development.

Its impacts on society make it excellent fodder for college-level political science courses. In one such course, Dense and his students conducted studies of the economic impact of a major beer festival in Portland.

“At the end of one of my courses, students say, ‘I didn’t realize beer was so political,’” Dense said during La Grande Rotary’s June 4 luncheon at the Northeast Oregon Transit Hub.

During his talk, Dense urged more robust support for and emphasis on northeast Oregon’s small craft brewing industry, which includes Terminal Gravity in Enterprise, Barley Brown’s in Baker City and Mt. Emily Ale House in La Grande.

Noting that some locally made beers have won prestigious awards, Dense said he thinks a local craft beer festival would be a great attraction for Northeast Oregon.

“I’d make the argument that we should have an Eastern Oregon beer festival, one spot where you can sample the beers of this region,” he said.

Dense said he thinks the craft beer industry can grow beyond those few breweries scattered around the region, and also attract beer lovers from around the country and even the world. He said interest in craft beer is growing everywhere. There are about 2,400 hundred breweries across the United States currently; 400 opened last year.

 “The market’s not saturated, and craft brewing is good for economic development and tourism,” Dense said.

To illustrate craft beer’s popularity, Dense pointed to the Oktoberfest celebration held each year in Munich, Germany.  That mother-of-all-folk-festivals, serving only beer brewed within the Munich city limits, draws 6.4 million people annually, and has become important to Germany’s overall economy.

“The important thing from a tourism perspective is that 20 percent of the people who come to Oktoberfest are foreigners,” Dense said.

The Munich event has inspired thousands of similar fests, many in the United States. In Oregon, one of the most popular festivals is the Mount Angel Oktoberfest, held each September in Mount Angel, a Willamette Valley community near Salem with a population of 3,200. Craft beer is vital to the celebration, a reason people come from all over to take part.

“Three hundred and fifty thousand come to the Mount Angel Oktoberfest. You can be a small city, identify yourself as a beer destination, and have a lot of tourism,” Dense said.

Another Beaver State event is the Oregon Brewer’s Festival, a July affair in Portland that showcases products from about 80 small craft breweries.

Dense said the festival draws about 80,000 people, 70 percent of them from outside Portland, and 33 percent of them women.

He said the average attendee spends about $650, not only at the festival but at hotels and motels, restaurants, and other businesses catering to the tourist trade.

“That is not chump change. If we did a festival here, we may never get that big. But the point is, the visitors spend a lot of money on different categories,” he said.

Dense added that private businesses aren’t the only winners in places where there are festivals. The Oregon Brewer’s Festival, he said, generates about $1.5 million for Multnomah County and the City of Portland.

During a question and answer session following Dense’s talk, one Rotarian wondered what impact a more vibrant craft beer industry might have on local agriculture. Dense said that hops don’t grow particularly well here, but barley, another key ingredient, does.

“I think barley’s the way to go. It does real good here,” he said.

Another attendee asked Dense to talk about possible negative consequences of a beer festival, including increases in drunk driving offenses.

Dense said he agrees there may be some unwanted consequences, but added that such things can be dealt with effectively. He said that at most festivals, promoters put an emphasis on controlled drinking, and use of public transportation.

“There is a negative side, but from my perspective the industry is very responsible about issues like drunk driving,” he said.

Dense said he hopes local people will take the initiative in promoting the local craft beer industry and the idea of a festival.

“Eastern Oregon has the profound opportunity to use craft beer as an item of interest,” he said.