Boston

Boston Beer will look to start 2016 strong with seasonals such as Samuel Adams Cold Snap. Credit: Boston Beer.

Boston Beer Co. (NYSE:SAM) is set to release fourth-quarter 2015 results this Thursday after the market close. With shares down more than 20% since the craft brewer served reasonably strong Q3 performance in October, investors are rightly hoping its latest report will serve as a pick-me-up in an otherwise difficult start to the year. 

So what, exactly, should we be expect to hear from Boston Beer this week? Let's start with the headline numbers.

Recall that Boston Beer disappointed investors three months ago by selectively reducing its full-year 2015 guidance, calling for earnings per share between $7.00 and $7.40 (down from $7.10 to $7.50), and depletions growth -- a key measure for how quickly its products travel from warehouses to consumer outlets -- to arrive between 3% and 6%, down previous expectations of between 6% and 9%. While we don't lend much credence to Wall Street's near-term-oriented demands, note that analysts' consensus estimates call for full-year earnings right at the midpoint of Boston Beer's guidance, or $7.20 per share.

At the same time, we shouldn't forget that Boston Beer has effectively under-promised and over-delivered on earnings with each of its past four quarterly reports, leaving the market to fret primarily over its trend of decelerating depletions and intensifying competition from large and small brewers alike. 

Digging deeper, recall that last quarter Boston Beer's founding chairman, Jim Koch, blamed underwhelming depletion trends on ongoing weakness in the company's Samuel Adams brand because of competition, as well as a "slowing in the cider category." Boston Beer's Angry Orchard proved itself as the best-selling hard cider in the U.S. since 2013, and the category's healthy growth served to offset weakness elsewhere in Boston Beer's brand portfolio until chinks in its armor began to show last quarter.

Nonetheless, Boston Beer CEO Martin Roper insisted that while short-term growth is uncertain, "Angry Orchard maintained its share even as competitors continue to enter or increase investment." Listen closely this week, then, for whether Boston Beer management maintains that vote of confidence in the Angry Orchard brand.

On the beer side, investors should expect to hear not only how consumers reacted to Boston Beer's winter seasonal offerings and its flagship Boston Lager variety, but also whether the company had a smooth transition to its spring seasonal selections toward the end of the quarter. The latter should include notable comments on Samuel Adams Cold Snap, which is entering its third year, as well as promoting Boston Beer's increasingly popular selection of IPAs, its Twisted Tea brand, and, most recently, its entrance into the hard root beer category with Coney Island Hard Root Beer, which Roper noted that last quarter was "well supported by distributors, retailers, and drinkers."

To combat the negative trends, Boston Beer decided to introduce new packaging and advertising in the second half of 2015. So I'll be watching closely to see whether these initiatives have had the desired effect.

Next, I want to hear more on the progress of Boston Beer's supply-chain investments, which aim to enhance customer service and increase the freshness of its products. More than likely, Roper will reiterate his long-standing stance that Boston Beer remains "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." That stance should be music to long-term investors' ears.

Finally, listen for updates on Boston Beer's view of the coming year. For perspective, assuming Boston Beer hits the midpoint of its current per-share earnings guidance for 2015, Wall Street's consensus estimates predict that earnings per share will rise 11.8% in 2016 to roughly $8.05.

By comparison, three months ago Boston Beer tentatively told investors to expect 2016 depletion and shipment growth in the mid- to high-single-digit range, national price increases of between 1% and 2%, and full-year gross margin expansion of one percentage point from 2015 to between 52% and 54%. If last year's fourth-quarter report is any indication, Boston Beer management should be ready to offer more firm figures for each of these metrics, as well as specific guidance for earnings per share and capital spending, including planned investments in its incubator-style Alchemy and Science brands.

Whether Boston Beer's view lives up to Wall Street's demands remains to be seen -- though it should at least give investors a more solid grasp on the company's near-term direction. Regardless of how the stock responds this week, any one quarter seems unlikely to significantly alter Boston Beer's enormous long-term opportunity, as it still commands less than 2% share of the U.S. beer market. 

Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends 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.