During the high-street boom of the late 1990s, when bars were proliferating in the centre of towns up and down the UK, some people thought that JD Wetherspoon was under threat.
Fast forward 10 years and many of those brands the likes of Walkabout or Yates's are struggling, while Wetherspoons continues to bestride the trade and buck the trends.
And the Wetherspoons secret, according to founder Tim Martin, the man that senior pub industry figures picked out as the most influential trade individual of the past 30 years in a Publican poll? Beer.
"We couldn't believe our luck when the so-called high-street operators and the themed pub owners opened up lots of pubs all around Britain, and they didn't put any real ale in," remembers Tim.
"It was the wise old fogies like Fuller's, Young's, Greene King and us who kept pushing real ale and we¹ve stood the test of time better than the guys who didn't. The proof of the pudding was in the eating." Or drinking.
Beer of all shapes and sizes matters to good pubs and no-one understands it better than Tim, who visits at least 15 of his 700-odd pubs a week, tasting at least two beers in every pub he goes to.
If beer goes in cycles, then Tim isn't the only one that believes the category is on an upward curve again, with real ale one of the key factors that will help lead pubs out of the current terrible trading period.
"It's taken a while for the situation to adjust the minor brewers and the family brewers have been pushing real ale like crazy, and that's what customers want," he says. "And a lot of tenants have been quietly pushing real ale, and the ones who do it well have done a great job." Gesturing around the Metropolitan Bar in Baker Street, London, where we are meeting during Wetherspoons' latest Real Ale Festival, Tim demonstrates the wide cross-section of beer drinkers on show although they do tend to be predominantly male, he says.
Despite the best efforts of Cask Marque, he believes beer will always have a limited appeal to the fairer sex. "In the same way you are not going to get older males drinking vodka Red Bull, there¹s no point in trying to market it to them!" is his typically outspoken view.
"I just liked the taste"
Tim's passion for beer began back in the 1970s. "I went to school in Northern Ireland and New Zealand so when I came to university I got familiar with real ale I just liked the taste," he recalls, picking out the beers of the local Shipstone¹s and Home breweries particularly fondly. And it was beer that was the primary reason for Tim moving to the other side of the bar.
"When I came down to live in North London and study law I couldn¹t believe how dire the beer was there were no Fuller's or Young's pubs north of the river at the time," he says.
His beer education continued at the Sun in Bloomsbury (now renamed the Perseverence) while he studied law with Ruddles County emerging as his personal favourite of the time.
From there his allegiance moved on to Marlers, a pub converted from a bookmakers in Muswell Hill where he started drinking Abbot Ale and Wessex and where he soon made his first foray into running pubs.
He says: "It was run by a guy called Andrew Marler. He wanted to get out of`the pub trade and I wanted to get out of law. Its big selling point was real ale it's hard to think now, but back in 1979 it was a fashionable drink." Beer, then, underpinned the Wetherspoons ethos from the outset, with Tim "learning from my mistakes" in Muswell Hill for a couple of years before opening a second pub in Crouch End. Within four years he had four pubs and you could say the rest is history.
Three decades later and Tim sits at the helm of a company with 700-odd pubs which refuses to stop expanding. While the pricing policy and promotions often tend to grab the headlines, beer continues to be the liquid foundation on which the chain is built.
"Virtually 100 per cent of our pubs have Cask Marque approval and I believe we have a higher percentage of our pubs in the Good Beer Guide than any other company," says Tim.
He praises the "afficionados" of beer, such as Greene King and Marston's, who he says have given Wetherspoons tremendous support over the years.
"There's a huge amount of training around beer, investment in our beer lines and in the cellar, and there's a lot of checking that goes on," he acknowledges.
"Cask Marque has done a fantastic job in checking on the quality of beer and then rechecking. Also although they¹ve come in for criticism, the Campaign for Real Ale has done a great job too the combination of all those organisations and businesses is a lot of support for real ale." As well as Tim's own visits to the pubs and the Cask Marque inspections, Wetherspoons gets an average six quality control visits a month from internal and mystery visitors. "Staff get paid a bonus based on the standards found on those visits. It's a good system," he says.
Tim sees the continued resurgence of beer as vital to the next decade of the industry, alongside further development of food and coffee and is calling for a 10-year moratorium on regulations that increase costs for publicans and tax rises to support the industry.
He is unequivocal on the fact that beer and pubs will have an uncertain future unless the trade stands up for pubs and lobbies hard for a break from the politicians and he lays much of the current problem at the feet of the Prime Minister.
"Nothing will happen if we don't lobby for change," he says. "Gordon Brown was the worst Chancellor in history, he's economically illiterate any government would be better than him. To quote Eric Morecambe, the boy's a fool!" One thing's for sure Tim Martin is no fool when it comes to beer and business. During the recent festival more than 3.2 million pints of beer were sold in Wetherspoons pubs, as Tim says "probably 15 to 20 per cent of all the cask beer sold in Britain in those two weeks".
Beer Matters indeed to Wetherspoons.
Tim Martin's top five beers
1. Abbot Ale
2. Young's Special
3. Fuller's London Pride
4. Marston's Pedigree
5. Exmoor Stag
"My perfect evening is to have two or three pints of Abbot, or something similar, and something to eat. I love going to the pub, reading the paper after a day¹s work, and having two or three pints."
What's Beer Matters all about?
Launching today, Beer Matters is the new initiative from The Publican and Greene King aimed at ensuring beer is front of mind for licensees in 2009.
Covering all beer styles from real ale to lager, in the months to come you¹ll be able to get involved with the initiative through:
A series of How to guides offering advice on beer quality, serve and range
Profiles of licensees on 'Why Beer Matters to Me'
Industry roundtables on how to better promote beer
And much more.
To get involved in Beer Matters call 020 7955 3710, or visit www.thepublican.com/beermatters today