With Budweiser on the Craft-Brew Warpath, Is Boston Beer Still a Good Bet?

Global beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev looks poised to increasingly flex its muscle in the craft-beer space, recently agreeing to acquire a tiny New York-based craft brewer. Do its ambitions spell doom for craft-beer kingpin Boston Beer?

Mar 27, 2014 at 2:00PM

Craft-beer kingpin Boston Beer (NYSE:SAM) has built a formidable franchise in the beer business thanks to its first-mover advantage in the craft-beer segment. It's an area that continues to grow at a double-digit rate as consumers gravitate toward better beer options. The company has also been wise to broaden its product offerings, with successful forays into the malt and cider categories through its Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard brands, respectively. 

However, the global beer giants appear increasingly anxious to capture more of the craft business for themselves. This is evidenced by Anheuser-Busch InBev's (NYSE:BUD) recent deal to acquire Blue Point Brewing, a tiny New York-based microbrewer with a loyal local customer base and a quirky portfolio of brews including Blueberry Ale and Toxic Sludge.  So, with the King of Beers hot on its trail, is Boston Beer a good bet at current prices?

What's the value?
Boston Beer has come a long way since introducing its trademark Boston Lager in 1984, with a current stable of 50 beers and annual production of roughly 3.5 million barrels. The company has enjoyed a multi-year, double-digit growth trajectory due to seemingly limitless demand for craft beer as well as a culture of innovation. Such ingenuity has been highlighted by new product unveilings like its Sam Adams Cold Snap and Rebel IPA offerings. 

Boston Beer's strong growth has also partially been a function of its focus on the end customer, which was the impetus for its Freshest Beer Program. The initiative aims to reduce stale products and keep its customers coming back for more.

In its latest fiscal year, Boston Beer continued to post solid results. Performance included a 27.4% top-line gain that was helped by a strong overall volume performance and slightly higher average prices.  The company's core beer business performed admirably. Its non-core units, however, were standout performers, highlighted by a nearly doubling of sales in its cider unit. The net result for Boston Beer was higher operating cash flow, providing funds to further invest in new product development and unique marketing initiatives, like its annual Longshot American Homebrew Contest.

The awakening giant
Of course, everything didn't come up roses for Boston Beer in the latest period, as higher commodity and packaging costs led to a lower overall gross margin. In addition, the company is increasingly finding a need to ramp up its marketing activities in order to offset the craft market share ambitions of the heavy marketers. Industry behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev, for instance, primarily participates in the sector through its Shock Top and Goose Island labels.

Unlike Boston Beer, Anheuser-Busch InBev found organic top-line growth hard to come by in FY 2013. It reported a 2% decline in volumes after adjusting for the effects of its acquisitions and divestitures. While the company's global brands, including Budweiser and Stella Artois, performed well, its myriad of secondary brands had trouble generating volume increases. 

Despite the challenging sales environment, though, Anheuser-Busch InBev took advantage of consumers' growing preference for premium products to generate higher average prices for its portfolio. In turn, this led to a bump up in its operating profitability.

Unfortunately for Boston Beer, Anheuser-Busch InBev is using much of its aforementioned incremental profit to bulk up its presence in the faster-growing better-beer arena. This is evidenced by its Blue Point Brewing acquisition as well as its blockbuster acquisition of Mexican beer heavyweight Grupo Modelo in 2013. 

The company also owns a major stake in Craft Brew Alliance (NASDAQ:BREW), an amalgamation of lesser known craft-beer brands that has quietly built itself into one of the top five craft-beer players. While Craft Brew Alliance's top-line growth has failed to follow the same trajectory as Boston Beer's growth, with a 5.8% increase in FY 2013, Anheuser-Busch InBev seems likely to make further investments in Craft Brew Alliance in the future. It's attempting to create a diversified portfolio of growing brands in the craft-beer segment.

The bottom line
Boston Beer shows no signs of slowing down, recently reporting strong double-digit sales growth to start the new year. However, the company's operating margin may continue to exhibit downward pressure as more competitors seek to capture the craft-beer segment's sales upside. 

As such, given Boston Beer's above-market P/E multiple of roughly 47, investors should be careful. Nonetheless, Boston Beer seems to still be in good shape for the long haul.

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Robert Hanley has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Boston Beer. The Motley Fool owns shares of Boston Beer. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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