Craft Brew’s Future Looks Bright, but Should You Buy It?

Big things come in small packages. When those who believe in this adage start betting on companies like Craft Brew Alliance (NASDAQ: BREW  ) , a small company compared to brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD  ) and Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM  ) , they bid up shares to pretty steep valuations of more than 200 times the trailing P/E. Investors are definitely expecting big things from this small brewer, but will Craft Brew Alliance be able to deliver?

A big opportunity for Craft Brew
Let's take a look at Craft Brew Alliance's recently reported results and see how the company stands up against its larger counterparts.

Craft Brew Alliance has two popular and fast-growing labels -- Kona with more than 25% growth, and Redhook with more than 21% growth reported in the third quarter of fiscal 2013. In addition, the Omission brand is ahead of the competition in targeting the gluten-free beer market, according to the company.

Gluten-free beer still occupies a very small share of the entire gluten-free food and beverages market. The gluten-free food and beverages market in the U.S. is pegged to be worth $6.6 billion by the end of 2017 because grain-based diets lead to a variety of health ailments.

Craft Brew Alliance operates in a growing market. The Brewers Association reported mid-year 2013 growth of 15% in dollar sales, and the CEO of Craft Brew Alliance mentioned, "I believe we are only scratching the surface of what we can accomplish as a uniquely positioned high-growth craft beer company."

Craft Brew saw strong top-and bottom-line growth during the third quarter, with revenue up 11% and earnings doubling to $0.10 per diluted share from last year. Top-line growth was driven by 14% depletion growth for the quarter, which resulted in an increase of 13% in branded-beer shipments.

The company wasn't prepared for the unprecedented growth in demand, which placed pressure on the supply chain, predominantly in warehousing and shipping operations. This drove up costs, resulting in gross margin contraction by 50 basis points. Going forward, Craft Brew Alliance is working to improve on this front to expand the gross margin through slight increases in average price and increasing depletions.

 Going forward, Craft Brew reiterated its guidance for fiscal 2013. This includes depletion growth of 7% to 11% and average price increases of approximately 1% to 2%.

Boston Beer: the leading player
Boston Beer's third-quarter results were impressive, as it posted 29% growth in shipments versus the prior-year period. On the back of this volume growth, consolidated revenue climbed 30% from last year to $216.4 million. Earnings surged 23.5% versus the year-ago quarter to $1.89 per share and managed to beat analyst estimates of $1.84 per share.

Full-year 2013 depletions growth is now estimated to be between 21%-24%, up from the previous range of 17%-22%. The upward revision is due to the strong performance of the Samuel Adams, Twisted Tea, and Angry Orchard brands. Samuel Adams is one of the largest craft-beer offerings in the country, and Angry Orchard cider has become one of the top U.S. ciders. Even with its strong growth, the company's forward P/E is less than 37, far less than Craft Brew's 59.2. 

Cheap, but slow
On the other hand, Anheuser-Busch InBev has a forward P/E of less than 19, which is the lowest among the three. Anheuser-Busch InBev has a strong portfolio of more than 200 beer brands and has a global footprint with exposure to both mature and emerging markets. Its production facilities are spread across six geographic regions.

On the back of solid hectoliter growth of 4.2%, the company delivered revenue growth of 3% in its third quarter. Earnings in the quarter came in at $1.36 per share, and this was 172% more than the year-ago quarter. Hence, even though Anheuser-Busch trades at cheaper levels than the other two, its growth isn't as impressive as the others. So, investors looking for growth in this market should take a closer look at Craft Brew or Boston Beer.

Which one should you choose?
Craft Brew is the smallest of the lot, and thus it might have more room to grow. But it is way too expensive, and conservative investors might not like that. Comparatively, Boston Beer is quite cheap, it is expecting higher growth than Craft Brew in depletions, and has the one of the largest craft-beer brands in the U.S., making it a safer bet. 

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