The sale talks between Wychwood, the brewer of Hobgoblin beers, and Refresh UK, the brand owner, is likely to throw a spotlight on the value of other small brewers with well-known beers.

Wychwood, which produced 30,000 barrels a year at its brewery in Witney, Oxfordshire, has built a considerable niche with its bottled beer brands in supermarkets and off-licences, and 70% of production is believed to be in bottled form, with brands such as Fiddler's Elbow. It also sells its own alcopops.

It is being sold because its main backer, the venture capital company 3i, decided it wanted to sell its 37% stake because it no longer fitted corporate criteria.

The Balaclava Pub Company is negotiating to buy Wychwood's Hobgoblinns division, 29 mostly student-oriented pubs from Bristol to Leeds. However, the brewery is set to be sold separately to Refresh UK, which sprang from the break-up of Usher's Brewery in the West Country in 2000.

Refresh UK has built up its own portfolio in the on and off-trades, with brands including Manns Brown Ale, Bishops Tipple and Ushers Best Bitter, which are brewed for it by the Thomas Hardy Brewery in Dorchester. It also distributes the German beer brands Lowenbrau and Franziskaner in the UK.

Adding Wychwood's brands will make it a more powerful force in both the on and off-trades. It also puts the focus on other "new" breweries that have succeeded in building up powerful brand equities in the on and off trades with their beers, such as Hopback with Summer Lightning, Black Sheep with Black Sheep Best Bitter, and Woodforde's with Wherry bitter.

Rupert Thompson, chief executive of Refresh UK, which is based in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, said the company would not be transferring production of its current brands from Thomas Hardy if it succeeds in its bid to buy the Wychwood Brewery: "Thomas Hardy do an excellent job for us," he said. However, he said, Refresh UK hoped to work with the Wychwood Brewery team on new product development at the Witney brewery.

Balaclava was started nine months ago by Leo Murphy, formerly with Greene King. It already has some 25 pubs, leased from Punch, and will more than double in size if it succeeds in buying Wychwood's estate.

The Wychwood pub estate is mostly on lease from landlords such as Unique and Punch. In the past two years Hobgoblinns has opened three "superpubs", including one in Leeds that is said to be doing close to £40,000 a week.