* Q1 core profit (EBITDA) $3.09 bln, vs $2.98 bln forecast
* Volume up 0.8 percent like-for-like vs flat forecast
* Brazil volumes up 15.9 pct, U.S. down 6.8 pct
* Warns of lower Q2 profit growth due to World Cup marketing
* Shares hit three-week high after lower opening
(Updates after investor conference call)
By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, May 5 World No. 1 brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR) earned more than expected in the first quarter of 2010 as beer sales surged in booming Brazil and forecast stronger growth in the second half of the year.
The brewer of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck's said on Wednesday core profit (EBITDA) rose a like-for-like 5.1 percent in January-March to $3.09 billion, beating a forecast for $2.98 billion in a Reuters poll.
AB InBev had previously forecast a low single-digit percentage rise due to a U.S. market hit by bad weather, a tripling of beer tax in Russia, and higher emerging market commodity prices.
The company's shares opened down, but surged to a three-week high by late morning. At 1440 GMT, they were up 2.5 percent at 36.995 euros, making them the second-strongest in the FTSEurofirst 300 index of Europe's leading stocks .FTEU3.
Analysts said the initial weakness was due to concerns about non-recurring items, which left net profit lower than expected, but a bullish mood about sales in Brazil, where it brews Brahma and Skol, eventually prevailed.
"Brazil was amazingly strong," said Gerard Rijk of ING.
Trevor Stirling of Bernstein Research said AB InBev had got a three percentage point gain from raising its market share in Brazil, the rest largely from vibrant industry expansion.
Overall, the company sold 0.8 percent more barrels, cans and bottles, with a 15.9 percent surge in Brazil, where it has two-thirds of the market, partly offset by a 6.8 percent fall in the United States, where it accounts for half of all beer sales.
AB InBev said volume growth in the second quarter would be in line with that of the first. EBITDA growth would be lower, largely due to marketing costs for the soccer World Cup starting in June, for which Budweiser is the official beer.
"We continue to expect third quarter volume and EBITDA growth above first half levels, increasing further in the fourth quarter," Chief Financial Officer Felipe Dutra told a conference call.
AB InBev, which announced on Tuesday its Bud Light would take over sponsorship of the U.S. National Football League in 2011, said volume comparisons would be easier in the second half, particularly in the United States.
TENTATIVE U.S. RECOVERY
The company said it benefited from marketing efforts, a strong economy and increases in disposable income in Brazil, whose finance ministry on Tuesday raised its 2010 growth forecast to between 5.5 and 6.5 percent. [ID:nN04244825]
"There is momentum today in our business in Brazil," Chief Executive Carlos Brito told an investor conference call, saying the economic environment, the higher minimum wage and the strength of AB InBev brands were all positive.
However, it took a hit in the United States, the world's most profitable beer market, from bad weather and high unemployment, particularly among the core drinking population aged 21 to 27.
There the jobless rate was 9.7 percent in March, although consumer spending increased at the fastest pace in three years in the first quarter. [ID:nN29103242]
"We start to see some very encouraging (U.S.) indicators, but that's it... It's too early to say the worst is behind us," Dutra said.
MillerCoors, the second largest brewer in the United States, suffered a 4.0 percent fall in sales to retailers in the first quarter, marginally better than AB InBev, but reported largely flat net income due to higher prices and cost savings. [ID:nLDE64313X]
AB InBev's earnings reflected a split between consumers in the developed world struggling with rising unemployment and many in emerging markets prepared to spend more.
For world number two SABMiller (SAB.L), growth in Africa and Latin America helped it sell 2 percent more beer in the first three months of 2010. Heineken (HEIN.AS), with more developed markets, suffered a 5.3 percent like-for-like drop. [ID:nLL631571] (Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Andrew Callus and Erica Billingham)