A convoluted advertising lawsuit between beer giants just took a new plot twist, one that involves allegations of broken NDAs and stolen trade secrets. On Thursday, beverage giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) filed a counterclaim against its competitor MillerCoors, accusing it of stealing Bud Light and Michelob Ultra recipes through former employees. In a heavily redacted complaint filed with the U.S. District Court of Western Wisconsin, AB InBev notes that the trade secrets in question are its “most important assets—specifically, the means and manner in which it brews its most popular beers.”
“Today, we filed in Federal Court claims alleging that MillerCoors violated state and federal law by misappropriating our trade secrets, including our beer recipes,” AB InBev said in a statement. “We will enforce our right to uncover how high up this may reach in the MillerCoors organization. We take our trade secrets seriously and will protect them to the fullest extent of the law.”
It’s an unexpected turn in a legal saga that, until now, has revolved mostly around ingredient claims. Since February 2019, MillerCoors and AB InBev, Bud Light’s parent company, have been entangled in a dispute over a marketing campaign suggesting that Miller Lite beer contains corn syrup. The ingredient is a cheap, widely used sweetener that some critics claim has links to health problems. (That said, there’s no definitive evidence that corn syrup is worse for your body than any other type of sugar.)
The promo that started the litigation was a goofy, faux-medieval ad where a delivery of corn syrup—intended to be used in Miller Lite and Coor Light—is misdelivered to the kingdom of Bud Light. One month after the campaign launched at Super Bowl LIII, MillerCoors filed a lawsuit accusing AB InBev of false and misleading marketing. On its website, MillerCoors says that while it does use corn syrup in its beer-brewing process, none of the ingredient remains by the time consumers crack open a cold one. (In a separate PDF with detailed nutrition information, MillerCoors lists corn syrup as an ingredient in many of its beers, including Miller Lite.) The company makes a good point: Though sugar functions as feed for yeast during beer fermentation, it’s completely broken down during the brewing process. Only alcohol and carbon dioxide are left over, giving beer its fizz, and its buzz‚
In response to the latest allegations, a MillerCoors spokesperson provided The New Food Economy with the following comment: “MillerCoors respects confidential information and takes any contrary allegations seriously, but if the ingredients are a secret, why did they spend tens of millions of dollars telling the entire world what’s in Bud Light? And why are the ingredients printed on Bud Light’s packaging in giant letters?”
Indeed, AB InBev has been forthcoming about its products’ ingredients, which are centrally listed on its “Tap Into Your Beer” website. But the issue at hand is about more than what can be read off a can label. AB InBev is accusing MillerCoors of misappropriating (read: stealing) trade secrets, including “geographic source, precise mixture, and specific varieties of the hops” and “the weights and volume of the mixture of the ingredients.”
How could MillerCoors get its hands on this top-secret information? The counterclaim points to two specific individuals, both former AB InBev employees now employed at MillerCoors. AB InBev says the ex-employees are bound by confidentiality agreements not to disclose AB InBev trade secrets.
AB InBev used text messages between a current AB InBev employee and Josh Edgar—a former AB InBev brewer and current MillerCoors brewer—as evidence that Edgar obtained trade secrets on behalf of MillerCoors. In a message dated January 28, 2019, Edgar asked “How much enzyme u adding to Bud Light?” AB InBev also noted that MillerCoors happened to have photographs of BudLight and Michelob Ultra recipes, which AB InBev suggested was “a print-out of a screen shot that was folded up, secreted out of the AB brewery, and then sent by text.”
AB InBev also claims that Martin David Brooks, a former employee and current vice president of global quality and food safety at MillerCoors’s parent company, has up-to-date knowledge of AB InBev’s current technical manuals, which it claims “describe precisely and in great detail how to make AB’s most successful beers.” The extent to which AB InBev suggests that Brooks was sharing trade secrets isn’t clear, due to the counterclaim’s numerous redactions.
Now, AB InBev is demanding a jury trial and is seeking various damages, legal fees, and the return of all copies of its trade secrets. Likely, this means that the MillerCoors and AB InBev corn syrup fracas is far from over. Who knew such a lackluster Super Bowl could make food industry drama so intriguing?