Anheuser-Busch InBev beat forecasts with stronger first-quarter earnings and clinched the sale of its Korean brewer on Thursday, sending its shares higher, though it warned profit growth would slow.

The world's largest brewer said earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) rose a like-for-like 25.9 percent to $2.79 billion, compared with the average $2.56 billion in a Reuters poll of 13 analysts.

Volume growth, notably in Brazil after last year's poor summer there, and cost-cutting centered on its acquired U.S. business drove the rise.

AB InBev also announced the planned divestment of Oriental Brewery in Korea to private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co for $1.8 billion.

The maker of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck's, reporting in dollars for the first time, said all areas delivered EBITDA margin expansion, led by North America, where it grew to 37.3 percent from 29.9 percent.

North America now accounts for about 40 percent of group revenue after InBev's $52 billion purchase of Anheuser-Busch last year. EBITDA there grew by a like-for-like 31.7 percent.

The company's shares rose as much as 10.5 percent to a seven-month high of 26.46 euros and were up 7.3 percent at 0755 GMT, outperforming the DJ Stoxx Europe food and beverage sector <.SX3P>, which rose 2.9 percent.

Gerard Rijk of ING said the strong start to the year was the key news, given the Korea deal had been rumored for some time.

The start to 2009 was very good and it was not just cost-cutting. Volumes have also improved, he said.

However, AB InBev cautioned that the first quarter was not indicative of the rest of the year.

The overall environment remains challenging, we project full year cost of sales per hectoliter to remain up in the low single digits, and comparisons become increasingly difficult.

The group had a disappointing first quarter last year as Brazilian beer sales fell and commodity costs rose.


The company said first-quarter volumes grew 0.9 percent, against overall flat expectations, and better than competitors.

For world number two SABMiller , volumes fell 1 percent. Heineken and Carlsberg , both heavily present in the depressed European market, recorded like-for-like declines of 6.3 percent and 5 percent.

AB InBev said the Oriental Brewery (OB) divestment, yielding a capital gain of $500 million, would be used to build down some of the $45 billion of debt AB InBev took on to fund its merger. It has a target of divesting $7 billion of assets.

In the biggest private equity purchase in Asia-Pacific excluding Japan since late-2006, KKR would pay 45 percent in cash, much more than typical for buy-out firms, with AB InBev offering $300 million in financing, according to a source.

KKR would get a company with a 40 percent share of a $2.8 billion beer market duopoly with Korea's number one Hite <103150.HK> in a deal to close in the third quarter. AB InBev would have the right to buy OB back within five years.

AB InBev repeated its goal of bringing in merger savings of $2.25 billion over three years and $1 billion in 2009, and said the first quarter had yielded $295 million.

Chief Financial Officer Felipe Dutra described beer as resilient, with net sales per hectoliter up almost 6 percent and key focus brand volumes up 3.5 percent, although he said consumers might in future trade down to cheaper brands.

During downturns what we usually see is a combination of people trading down from wine and spirits into beer and people shifting channels from on-premise to off-premise, so staying more at home with friends and family members while keeping drinking their preferred beer, he told a conference call.

AB InBev shares have more than doubled since a November low, when debt concerns and a rights issue weighed them down, and now trade at a price to projected 2009 ratio some 25-30 percent above European peers.

For some, this is justified by strong cash flow generation and cost savings. Others argue expected savings are already factored into the share price.

(Additional reporting by Michael Flaherty in Hong Kong; Editing by John Stonestreet and Rupert Winchester)