Image source: Compania Cervecerias Unidas.

Historically, the beverage business has been a great place to make money, and Chile's Compania Cervecerias Unidas (CCU 0.97%), also known as United Breweries, saw its stock climb precipitously as the fortunes of Latin America improved in the 2000s and early 2010s. More recently, though, United Breweries has faced challenges, and coming into its fourth-quarter financial report, investors wanted to see United Breweries show signs of breaking out of an economically induced funk. Unfortunately, United Breweries posted only mixed results that raised as many questions as they answered. Let's take a closer look at United Breweries and what its latest results mean going forward.

United Breweries can't fizz up its financials
United Breweries' fourth-quarter results didn't match up with more favorable performances in past quarters. The company posted a 14% gain in net sales in local currency terms, which was about 2 percentage points higher than investors were expecting. Net income sagged 6% in local currency, however, and that produced earnings of $0.29 per share, missing the consensus forecast by $0.12 per share.

The figures in U.S. dollar terms were even uglier. On a dollar basis, revenue dropped 2% to $637.9 million, and net income plunged nearly 20% to $54 million. GAAP earnings were $0.15 per share, and that was down from last year's $0.18-per-share showing.

In looking at United Breweries' numbers more closely, the company's volumes were consistent across its segments. Chile saw volume rise 1.6%, while international division volume gained 1.4% and wine volume climbed 1.9%. Sales gains came largely from a 12% boost to average selling prices. In terms of profitability, the domestic Chilean business saw minimal growth compared to a 50% jump in the international business and a rise in wines of 48%.

Fundamentally, United Breweries remained strong. Market share grew in its international segment despite unfavorable weather conditions and macroeconomic challenges that held back overall volume growth in the industry. Further devaluations of the Argentine peso during the period also weighed on the company's overall results.

CEO Patricio Jottar was happy about how well United Breweries has responded to pressure. "2015 has demonstrated our strength to successfully operate under adverse macroeconomic conditions and intense competition," Jottar said, "showing that we are well-positioned to face the challenges and opportunities of the coming years."

Can United Breweries get on track in 2016?
United Breweries also sees plenty of additional opportunities for growth. A new strategic plan covering 2016 through 2018 will focus on growth and efficiencies, and the company has chosen to stress the importance of beer and other beverages as its primary focus area.

United Breweries' moves during the fourth quarter have furthered that mission. The company sold off its Calaf and Natur food brands, reducing its share of non-core operations. It also divested its Bauza pisco-brandy unit.

One big question is whether consolidation will make competition even fiercer. Last year, Chilean bottler Embotelladora Andina (AKO.B -0.84%) jumped on reports that it might be in talks with Mexico's FEMSA and one of its peers to be acquired. So far, the deal hasn't moved forward, but the interest in Andina points to the interest in the Chilean market. To the extent that it wants to move more aggressively into beverages other than beer and other alcoholic offerings, United Breweries needs to consider Andina and other players in the market.

United Breweries' stock has stayed weak since the report, and concerns about poor macroeconomic conditions in Latin America continue to weigh on the beverage company. Until the situation becomes clearer, United Beverages could continue to struggle even as it works to flesh out its long-term strategy going forward.