International stocks can present opportunities that you can't find in the U.S. market, and Chile's Compania Cervecerias Unidas (CCU -4.15%) offers a way for investors to capture exposure to the rising consumer class throughout much of South America. CCU, which translates to United Breweries in English, has an extensive business that goes well beyond its home country's borders, and exports of Chilean wines to the U.S. and across the global market have traditionally played an important role in the company's success.

Coming into Wednesday's fourth-quarter financial report, United Breweries investors weren't expecting a huge amount of earnings growth, but they had wanted to see a nice rise in sales. The beverage maker's growth rates weren't quite as strong as many had hoped, but pockets of promising activity gave investors some reason to expect better things in 2018. Let's take a closer look at United Breweries and what its latest results say about its prospects.

Logo for Compania Cervecerias Unidas, with green letters CCU and an upward lighter green swoosh.

Image source: United Breweries.

Cooling off during the spring season

United Breweries' fourth-quarter results showed a slowing pace of growth that some found troubling. Net sales were up 6.3% to about 510 billion Chilean pesos, which was down by almost half from the third quarter and well short of what most investors had expected to see. Net income was flat from year-ago levels, matching up reasonably well against the consensus forecast among those following the stock.

United Breweries' fundamental numbers reflected the slowdown in sales. Consolidated unit volumes were higher by just 2.5% to 7.73 million hectoliters, slowing from a pace of almost 7% in the third quarter. CCU was still able to boost pricing, with average price increases of 3.7% accounting for the remainder of the company's overall revenue gain.

As we've seen before, United Breweries had the greatest success in its international segment, which covers Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Volume there jumped 15%, sending segment revenue up 18% and pre-tax operating profit higher by a third from year-ago levels. The company said that beer in Argentina was a major contributor to growth, although the devaluation of the Argentine peso weighed on results to some extent.

By contrast, volumes in Chile were down 2.1% from year-earlier figures, holding back sales growth in the segment to just 3%, and the unit posted only a 13% rise in pre-tax operating profit. The wine segment had even worse results on its bottom line, with a 3.5% volume increase translating to a more than 45% drop in EBITDA. Weak harvests, high production costs, and lower average prices all combined to hurt the business.

Can United Breweries bounce back in 2018?

CEO Patricio Jottar still saw 2017's overall performance as good, seeing the year's results as evidence to "demonstrate our ability to realize profitable growth under difficult macroeconomic conditions and an intense competitive environment." Jottar also noted that the company boosted its market share in all of its operating segment despite the disparate financial performance.

Expansion could be a potential pathway toward further growth for United Breweries. The company said it expects to have a 3 million hectoliter plant in Colombia ready for production later this year. CCU operates in Colombia through a joint venture with Postobon, and the plant will help the venture launch a mainstream beer brand as well as malt-based beverages for that market.

CCU has also made a lot of progress on its environmental strategy. The company set goals of reducing water consumption, carbon footprint, and industrial waste by 2020, and it has already achieved most of those goals three years early. With the goal of not having to use landfills at all, United Breweries sees itself as a model for environmental practices in the industry.

United Breweries investors seemed pleased with the news, and the stock perked up about 1% in pre-market trading following the announcement. The company will still have to weather changing economic conditions and consumer trends, but continued efforts could help Compania Cervecerias Unidas produce stronger growth in the coming year.