Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM ) is the biggest craft brewer in the U.S.,yet it's growing considerably faster than the craft brewing industry as a whole. Its 27% revenue growth from 2013 outpaced the estimated 20% industry-wide growth rate seen in craft beer overall, according to the Brewers Association. These results also mean that Boston Beer left rival Craft Brew Alliance (NASDAQ: BREW ) , which posted just 8% growth in 2013, in the dust.
That's a storyline that should have any Boston Beer investor licking his or her chops. But in the wake of a quarter in which Boston Beer reported revenue growth of 34% over the corresponding period of 2013, the company's shares fell by some 5% and remain nearly 12% off their high. Investors, it turns out, were less impressed with Boston Beer's revenue growth than they were by its disappointing earnings numbers.
With Boston Beer set to report on Wednesday afternoon, should investors prepare themselves for another mixed quarter that leaves the Street less than impressed?
Putting money back in the brew kettle
One big reason why Boston Beer missed the mark on earnings -- $1.33 quarterly EPS versus the consensus estimate of $1.49 -- is because it is investing money back into its brewing business. Founder Jim Koch and company have seen demand for their beers outstripping supply -- a dilemma any brewer would gladly accept.
Its new West Coast-style Rebel IPA was selling well, as were some of its seasonals, Koch said in February. Its Twisted Tea beverages and Angry Orchard ciders continue to gain ground, all while sales of its flagship Boston Lager has again started to grow, just in time for its 30th birthday.
This left Boston Beer in the difficult -- but enviable -- position of trying to keep up with the demand for its beers and other libations. What resulted were increased operating and freight costs -- and lower profits.
Here's how CEO Martin Roper addressed the situation in February:
"Given the opportunities that we see, we expect a continued high level of brand investment and capital investment as we pursue growth and innovation. We are prepared to forsake the earnings that may be lost as a result of these investments in the short term as we pursue long term profitable growth." -Fourth Quarter 2013 Earnings Call
Boston Beer "significantly increased" tank capacity at its breweries, expanded its packaging and shipping capabilities in order to keep up with the growing demand, and upped its advertising efforts.
Craft Brew Alliance trails behind
That is is a problem that smaller rival Craft Brew Alliance would gladly trade spots for. Craft Brew fell short of expectations in 2013, even while two of its major brands, Kona and Redhook, posted solid growth throughout the year. The biggest drag for Craft Brew was its Widmer Brothers, the label that has stayed truest to its 30-year-old craft-brewing roots.
Craft Brew has announced that it will look to re-position its three major labels in 2014, treating each as it is serving a different market. Redhook aims to grab the drinker used to Budweiser, Miller, and Coors, but looking to step up. Kona targets a more adventurous drinker who dabbles in imports. And Widmer shoots to go after the more seasoned craft beer veteran.
Boston Beer has been able to target all of those segments under just one brand. That may prove important in the years to come.
Changes in the industry
Despite the continuing growth of the craft industry as a whole, executives from both Boston Beer and Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD ) have said they see a time of consolidation setting in. Store shelves are overcrowded and bar managers are done adding tap handles. Instead, they see a movement toward stores and taverns streamlining their offerings, devoting more space to the strongest brands.
This is where both Boston Beer and A-B are looking to capitalize. After a stellar year for the Goose Island brewery that A-B acquired in 2011, the world's largest brewer has undertaken a big marketing push for the Chicago-based craft beer maker. With A-B's ability to ramp up production and distribution, Goose Island's growth could certainly accelerate through this year and beyond.
Goose Island remains a threat to Boston Beer, as does Craft Brew and every other successful smaller brewer out there, from Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas to your local brewpub. But with Boston Beer's growth accelerating -- and already outpacing craft beer in general -- it's hard to second-guess what the company is doing.
The investments in brewing capacity, distribution, and advertising will certainly weigh on Boston Beer's bottom line. Investors should be prepared for another soft earnings number on Wednesday. But investors buying for the long haul should stay more focused on Boston Beer's progress in grabbing an even bigger share of the craft market. If it can continue down that path, those investments will pay off for years to come.
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