Beer is flowing again, but Fuller’s glass still looks half-empty | Travel & leisure

Somewhere in the depths of the historic Fuller, Smith & Turner brewery in west London are the company’s original “brew books”. Stretching back to the 19th century, these leather-bound tomes chronicle the wisdom gleaned by its brewers, and the decades of trial and error that have shaped ales such as London Pride since 1845.

It’s hard to imagine what those books would say were they to chart the 12-month period from March 2020. The nation’s pubs were shut for months on end and demand for new brews has slowed to a trickle.

Even before the pandemic struck, Fuller’s was a very different business from the one founded 176 years ago. In 2019, Japanese giant Asahi bought the brewing operation for £250m, including the Chiswick plant whose distinctive malty aroma is known to anyone driving west out of London on the A4.

What remains is the pub and hotels business, comprising 212 directly managed pubs, 176 leased to tenants and 1,028 “boutique” hotel rooms.

Fuller’s ales still flow from the taps, thanks to a supply arrangement with the business it sold – or at least they do in normal times. But these still aren’t normal times, as Thursday’s full-year results will doubtless underline. At its last trading update, in March, the company said that its pubs had been open, on average, on just 27% of the 388 days between 20 March 2020 and 12 April this year.

Covid-19 closures were expected to push revenues down to 80% below the pre-pandemic year, the company said, implying takings likely to come in at about £64m, down from £320m.

The pub group, which focuses on London and the south-east, tapped investors for £54m in new equity as it warned that £5m of cash was going up in smoke every day.

It’s the same story wherever you look in the pubs industry. The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19, and full reopening, already delayed by a month, does not mean a return to full health.

Many pub businesses are still buckling under the strain of rent debt built up during the pandemic. The government has put forward a plan that would see landlords share some of the pain by taking a haircut on what they are owed, but that may not be enough for some.

Those hurting most are small, urban and independent venues, particularly ones that do not serve food and so did not benefit from last year’s “eat out to help out” scheme, or the VAT cut on food.

In better shape will be rural pubs with beer gardens and larger chains with deeper pockets. The latter are often stock-market-listed companies that manage their own venues, serve food and have large floorspaces they can use to cushion the ill effects of social distancing.

Fuller’s falls somewhere in the middle. It’s small compared with pubcos that operate on a national, or even global, level. A lot of its venues are in London, where outside space is rarer. But with a market capitalisation of more than £500m, it has options, as evidenced by its ability to issue new equity and refinance debts.

If things get really perilous, Fuller’s could still issue more debt – this has already risen to £216m during the pandemic, from £152m – or sell some of its freehold properties.

At the last trading update, Fuller’s did not yet know that “Freedom Day” in England – originally slated for 21 June – was going to be pushed back to 19 July.

The effects of that won’t show up in Thursday’s results, which cover the year to the end of March. But its impact on recent trading could well add to the company’s woes.

Fuller’s will be far from alone in that respect. Even if things are looking a bit rosier in the beer garden, the pubs trade is a long way from being out of the woods.

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