Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are America's two largest brewing companies—but in 2019, their lawyers, not their brewers, are the ones who seem to be working overtime. Like a couple whose argument over not washing the dishes spiraled into a bitter divorce, what began as a Super Bowl attack ad back in February has led to an ongoing legal battle—and one that continues to escalate. The latest unexpected twist: In a court filing made yesterday, Anheuser-Busch alleges that MillerCoors went so far as to steal their trade secrets.
For those in need of a recap, back on February 3, Bud Light ran some high-profile Super Bowl commercials calling out Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup in their brewing process. MillerCoors wasn't happy with the ads because even though the statement is accurate—as I have written previously—the implications are misleading. Still, Anheuser-Busch claimed to be "very happy" with the ensuing "Corntroversy," despite the fresh rift it caused in the brewing industry. MillerCoors even sued Anheuser-Busch over the allegedly deceptive ads—and indeed, a number of rulings have been made in MillerCoors' favor.
But yesterday, Anheuser-Busch presented its own new accusation against MillerCoors—and one that only tangentially deals with corn syrup. The Bud Light brewer states that during the discovery period for its litigation, A-B's lawyers uncovered evidence that their biggest rival had gotten their hands on some of Anheuser-Busch's biggest trade secrets. As a result, A-B filed a counterclaim against MillerCoors. "Today, we filed in Federal Court claims alleging that MillerCoors violated state and federal law by misappropriating our trade secrets, including our beer recipes," Anheuser-Busch 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."
Though the filing contains extensive redactions, it points to two specific former Anheuser-Busch employees who now work at MillerCoors: Josh Edgar and Martin David Brooks. Especially intriguing are texts messages, reproduced in the court documents, purporting to show Edgar chatting with an unnamed A-B employee on February 8, just days after the controversy began. "U using dextrose on natural and Busch ?" one text states, asking about whether corn sugar is used in two well-known A-B products.
Meanwhile, MillerCoors just wants their competitor to give it a rest. "Anheuser-Busch has lost three major federal rulings in this case and now they are simply trying to distract from the basic fact that they intentionally misled American consumers," a MillerCoors spokesperson told me via email. "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?"
Frankly, you do have to wonder what's left for either side to achieve here. Part of the value of the corn syrup ads was their initial shock value, and whether or not the public has educated themselves to the facts, that shock value is gone. Plus, in general, the court's rulings have limited Bud Light's ability to use its "corn syrup" claims, so even if they wanted to, the ability to keep the campaign alive seems to be significantly stunted. Now, A-B appears to be turning to more serious allegations (perhaps with the hope that they might lead MillerCoors to back off?) but at some point, you have to ask if this has gone from a "very happy" controversy to a bit of a genuine mess.