By Myles Neligan
BBC News Online business reporter
The sale of Scottish & Newcastle's pubs to Spirit Group, announced on Monday, will go largely unnoticed by the people who drink in them.
Britons spend £20bn a year in the pub
But whether they realise it or not, the deal marks a historic milestone for Britain's pub sector.
Scottish & Newcastle's 1,400 pubs were the last licensed premises under the ownership of a major brewer, and their disposal completes a final split between the manufacturing and retailing branches of the beer industry.
It is a divorce that has been underway since 1990, when the Thatcher government ordered all brewers with more than 2,000 pubs to sell off some of their outlets in an effort to make the sector more competitive.
The move forced the big brewers to choose between making beer and managing pubs, and most decided that they could do without the hassle of running a nationwide chain of licensed premises.
A new generation of independent operators sprang up to buy the pubs that the brewers no longer wanted, and the S&N deal has cemented their hold over the industry.
These companies - firms such as Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, and Pubmaster - now own over a third of Britain's 60,000 pubs, including the bulk of the country's most lucrative High Street and city centre outlets.
Their expansion has been enthusiastically bankrolled by the City, and it's easy to see why.
The British do far more of their drinking in pubs than their European counterparts, and this cultural quirk ensures that the humdrum business of selling beer can yield bumper profits.
"The British pub sector generates about £20bn of consumer spending every year, and most of that is in hard cash," says Mark Hastings of the British Beer and Pubs Association.
Nor, by and large, have the money men been disappointed.
Fortunes have been made in the business, and pub-related transactions have helped City figures such as former Nomura financier Guy Hands and Pizza Express tycoon Hugh Osmond forge reputations as legendary dealmakers
Karen Jones, Spirit's chief executive, now looks set to make a name for herself as the sector's next entrepreneurial success story.
The S&N deal has more than doubled the firm's pubs estate overnight, catapulting it from ninth to fifth position in the national pub operators' league table.
How Spirit fares from here on in will depend to a large extent on the fortunes of the pubs sector as a whole.
The company, which manages its pubs directly, is more vulnerable to downturns than bigger rivals such as Enterprise and Punch, which simply collect rent from tenanted managers.
UK pub operators
1. Enterprise Inns: 5,142 pubs
2. Punch Taverns: 4,500 pubs
3. Unique: 4,000 pubs
4. Pubmaster: 3,000 pubs
5. Spirit Group: 2,400 pubs
6. Mitchells& Butler: 2,000 pubs
"Managed pubs tend to have higher refurbishment costs, and there are all the staff overheads as well," says Andrew Saunders, leisure analyst at Numis Securities.
"On the other hand, they benefit more if there's an uplift."
Spirit has also agreed to stock S&N products at market prices for the next seven years, a move which could limit its scope for re-branding its newly acquired chain of pubs.
Moreover, the pubs industry's latest big player may find that the ground beneath its feet shifts abruptly in the near future.
Punch Taverns, the UK's second biggest pub landlord, is said to be interested in buying Pubmaster, now ranked fourth alongside Spirit, as part of a continued expansion strategy.
Elsewhere, there has been speculation that sector leader Enterprise Inns may bid for third-ranked Unique Pub Company.
One thing that the pub operators have in common is that all of them are eagerly awaiting the long-delayed relaxation of the licensing laws, now expected in early 2005.
But the truth is that some of them may no longer be around when the day finally comes.