* Q1 beer volume 35.9 mln hectolitres vs 34.6 mln forecast
* Q1 revenue 3.83 bln euros vs 3.73 bln forecast
* Q1 operating profit before exceptional items declines slightly
* Company keeps 2012 outlook
* Shares up 4.0 pct (Updates with shares, analyst comment)
By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, April 18 (Reuters) - Heineken, the world’s third-largest brewer, sold more beer than expected in the first quarter and persuaded consumers to switch to premium brands, helping its shares to a four-year high.
Europe’s largest beermaker said on Wednesday beer volume grew 4.7 percent on a like-for-like basis, with revenue up 6.8 percent. Volume growth was more than double the rate the market had expected.
Analysts said that while Heineken had benefited from mild winters in much of Europe and North America, an early Easter and an extra leap-year day, volume and revenue growth were still impressive. Revenue per hectolitre increased 3.5 percent.
Trevor Stirling, analyst at Bernstein Securities, said he was most encouraged by the 4.5 percent volume growth in the Americas, with improvements for the Heineken brand in the United States and growth in Mexico, where it bought the second-largest brewer FEMSA Cerveza in 2010.
“There was scepticism about the quality of the business they bought there and the ability of Heineken to pull it around. It looks like they are proving the sceptics wrong,” he said.
The Dutch company’s shares were up 4.0 percent to 44.00 euros at 0915 GMT, after hitting its highest level since January 2008.
Heineken said its higher revenue and cost savings were partly offset by increased fixed costs in certain high- inflation markets, investments and increased raw material costs, such as barley.
With a further 23 million euro ($30.2 million) charge for non-completion of a planned sale of a Chinese brewer, operating profit before one-off items declined slightly. It did not give a precise figure.
Heineken, for whom western Europe makes up 45 percent of revenue, stuck to the outlook it issued in February. That expected growth in the emerging markets it is pushing into in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
It also said marketing and selling expenses would be in line with those of 2011 as it expanded its brands Desperados, Strongbow, Amstel and Sol. Higher malted barley prices would push up input costs by about 6 percent.
Heineken aims to offset the greater costs by a mix of selling more beer at higher prices and with a new 500 million euro cost savings plan running until 2014.
Heineken is the first of the big four brewers to report results for the first three months of 2012.
World number two SABMiller gives a trading update on Thursday, with a further update from its U.S. joint venture MillerCoors on May 8.
Global leader Anheuser-Busch InBev reports its earnings on April 30 and Carlsberg on May 9. ($1 = 0.7610 euros) (Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Erica Billingham)