Whitbread is keeping schtum about the future ownership of its brewing arm. The company is trying to reinvent itself as a pubs and leisure group. Strategic planning director David Richardson said it was on the look-out for potential targets ­ saying Whitbread was limited not by cash but by what was on offer. But the group ­ which this week announced a 7.1% rise in group pretax profit to £365m ­ is less forthcoming about its beer business. It brews and distributes Interbrew-owned Stella Artois in the UK, but Richardson would not be drawn on recent speculation that the two companies were in takeover talks. Analysts said both Interbrew and Dutch rival Heineken would be willing to pay between £300 and £400m for Whitbread's UK brewing arm. But Richardson would only say: "Beer has been with the group a long time, it is a good business, and clearly there is a lot of speculation about it." The beer arm grew its market share to 16%, boosted by a sales increase of 5.9% to £1,116m. With over 2 million barrels of Stella sold this year, Whitbread claims the brand is the fifth largest in the UK behind Persil, Walkers, Coke and Nescafé. The company admitted the performance at First Quench, the off licence chain in which it has a 50% stake, was "disappointing". Sales for Whitbread's stake plus its minority stake in Britannia Soft Drinks crept up 1.4% to £656.7m, but profit plummeted 23% to £14.4m. {{NEWS }}