updated 4/26/2006 5:14:52 PM ET 2006-04-26T21:14:52

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., the nation’s biggest brewer, said Wednesday its first-quarter profit was virtually unchanged from a year ago but sales improved. Earnings still beat Wall Street expectations, and its shares rose more than 5 percent.

The maker of Budweiser, Bud Light and other beers earned $499 million, or 64 cents per share, for the period ending March 31, compared with $500 million, or 64 cents per share, during the same quarter the previous year.

Gross revenue rose to $4.3 billion from $4.1 billion a year ago. After excise taxes are deducted, net revenue was $3.8 billion versus $3.6 billion a year ago.

Analysts, on average, were looking for earnings of 56 cents per share, according to a Thomson Financial poll.

“Coming off a difficult year in 2005, Anheuser-Busch achieved encouraging first quarter 2006 results,” President and Chief Executive Officer Patrick Stokes said in a news release. “The cost pressures we experienced last year continue, but at a lesser rate, and we have implemented a number of initiatives to reduce costs and enhance productivity.”

Anheuser-Busch has been trying to bolster beer sales, which have been hurt by growing interest in wine and spirits, analysts say. The company launched an industrywide advertising campaign in January it hopes will spark new interest in beer. With a 50 percent market share, Anheuser-Busch stands to gain the most from any beer resurgence.

The effort is more likely to lay the ground work for long-term gains, said Craig Hutson, a senior analyst for Chicago-based Gimme Credit research firm. But he said the competition from wine and spirits is not likely to die down any time soon .

“I guess what I would say is it’s hard for us to be very bullish on the domestic (beer) market,” Hutson said. He noted that rising fuel costs will pinch the budget of beer drinkers more than customers who can afford expensive wine and cocktails. But sales could still rise this year for Anheuser-Busch because 2005 was so slow, he said.

On Wednesday the company pointed to positive signs in beer sales, reporting that domestic beer shipments to wholesalers increased 4.6 percent for the first quarter. Actual wholesaler sales to retailers were up 3.3 percent.

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