Swapping Insurance Business for Making Suds : Businesses: Mark VanLeeuwen scrapped his thriving practice to open a brew-pub. His establishment serves as the city's first micro-brewery.


Sometime in January, Mark VanLeeuwen began drinking on the job.

"I drink more beer than I used to," the 33-year-old entrepreneur admitted on a recent afternoon as he knocked back a malty pint of Railroad Porter ale. He paused, and said, "But around here, we call that quality control."

VanLeeuwen recently scrapped a thriving insurance practice to open Santa Clarita's first micro-brewery. He said the move was more a calling than a whim.

"I just love good beer," the unlikely brew master said, guiding a tour of the brewery's stainless steel bowels and copper arteries. "Even as a teen-ager I saved my money to buy the imported stuff."

VanLeeuwen, who runs the upstart Santa Clarita Brewing Co. with his wife, Sheila, had been toying with the idea since he visited one in Hopland, Calif., in 1986--one of the areas where the micro-brewing trend has its roots. He later visited numerous facilities throughout the northwest, all the while gathering ideas for one of his own.

"I just couldn't believe the lack of brew-pubs happening in L. A. County," he said, adding that the demographics in suburban Santa Clarita suggested that the city would support such a venture.

"We've been in the black since the day we opened," VanLeeuwen said. "But it's still a white-knuckle kind of thing."

At any one time the brewery has four fresh brews on tap, including Golden Oak Ale, Beale's Bitter, Railroad Porter and Tumbleweed Wheat ale. The restaurant's menu offers standard pub fare, and for entertainment there's a pool table, darts, a big screen TV and live music on weekends.

"That's one thing that's real nice about this place--it's a family place," customer Janet Miller said recently. "My kid wants to have his birthday here."

Since the brew-pub opened three days before the Northridge earthquake, VanLeeuwen said it has attracted everyone from blue-collar workers to aerospace engineers, the common denominator seeming to be a thirst for suds.

Jeff Miller, a pub regular who works as a mechanic at a local gas station, agreed.

"This place gets all kinds, all ages, as long as they're beer drinkers," Miller said. "But the bottom line is that the pub is fun place to come to."

Appearing pensive as he quaffed a pint with a group of friends, Miller said he thought the new brew-pub served a nobler purpose as well.

"They're teaching Americans that there are different kinds of beers out there," he said, wiping the frothy telltale foam from above his lips, "not just the stuff the big companies are trying to ram down our throats."

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