Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD -0.28%) had a busy final quarter to 2013, scooping up another craft beer maker in Blue Point, reacquiring South Korea's Oriental Brewing, and trying to figure out a way to bring the rest of the Modelo Group under its umbrella. Those made plenty of headlines, but there were a number of other underlying issues that investors will want to watch for when A-B InBev reports Wednesday.
Let's take a look at three.
America's King overseas
Budweiser, deposed long ago as America's King of Beers, has seen sales continue to shrink in the states, despite ongoing marketing efforts to promote the brand to younger U.S. drinkers. The company's goal for Bud in the U.S. is "stability," a word that really means "stemming losses." But the story internationally is much different. Bud sales globally were up 8.1% over 2012's third quarter, and 7.5% over the first nine months of 2013. The label was doing particularly well in China and Brazil, CEO Carlos Brito said.
In China, A-B's "focus" brands grew by 14.8% over the first nine months of 2013. Those include Budweiser, Harbin, and Sedrin. These areas are key for A-B InBev because unlike the U.S., where beer sales are largely flat and established brands are losing share to smaller labels, China is seeing robust growth in beer drinking, which was up more than 30% between 2007 and 2009. Establishing Bud in growing markets would be a major score for the company, and Brito says it's "very well-positioned" to do so.
Is light beer dead?
The company is able to claim a small victory in the light beer category, as Bud Light has maintained its share of the market and continues its long reign as the best-selling beer in America. The trouble is, the light beer market overall continues to shrink.
Domestic light beers still own a combined 51% of the U.S. market. But they continue losing share to other libations, including wine, spirits, and craft beer, growing at an annual clip around 15%.
Craft Brew Alliance (BREW) sees two of its labels -- Redhook and Kona -- as keenly positioned to win drinkers from the megabrewers' light and premium brands. The company was excited to report those labels grew sales by 20% and 26%, respectively, in the quarter reported in November. Company officials consider Craft Brew uniquely positioned with these two brands to continue stealing away customers from traditional brands like Budweiser and Miller Lite.
A-B InBev hopes to reignite sales of light beer, especially its best-selling Bud Light, rolling out new 25-ounce and 16-ounce cans of Bud Light, as well as a major marketing effort aimed at younger drinkers next year. "It's our top priority in the U.S.," Brito said in October. Can it do enough?
Are megacrafts gaining ground?
A-B InBev made headlines last month with the acquisition of New York craft brewer Blue Point Brewing. This was the second microbrewer the company acquired outright, joining Chicago's Goose Island. Blue Point's annual 60,000 barrels of beer won't make a dent in the company's overall sales of just shy of 100 million. But the purchase reiterates A-B's growing interest in the craft space. It's able to take these beers nationally, and because it has such distributing clout in the U.S., you bet it can displace many local and regional beers on store shelves and tap handles with its own craft labels. A-B says Goose Island is now one of the fastest-growing craft brands in the country.
A-B has also seen great growth in its Shock Top line of wheat beers. These also compete with craft beer, especially those targeted at what Craft Brew Alliance executives call the "crossover drinker," who comes over to craft beers from Bud Light, Coors Light, or Heineken, or who might not have been a beer drinker beforehand.
We heard from Molson Coors (TAP -0.29%) earlier this month, and the company reported strong sales of the craft-style labels it produces in its MillerCoors partnership with SABMiller. Molson Coors said its "above-premium" brands are growing at double-digit rates, and now account for nearly a third of all the growth across the craft beer segment. If A-B InBev is able to continue generating growth in its craft beers and crafty labels, this will help to offset losses from the waning demand of its biggest U.S. brands in Budweiser and Bud Light -- and keep a foot firmly planted in a growing U.S. market segment.
The Foolish bottom line
A-B InBev is a brewing powerhouse, and has a lot going on around the globe. But there are some elements of the company investors can watch to get a better feel for the health of its brands in the markets that are most important to it. Keeping your eye on Bud sales globally, the battle to revive its key light beers, and its deepening interest in craft beer will give you a pretty good yardstick for A-B's progress.