MILWAUKEE, Wis. – It started as a spat over corn syrup – and truth in advertising. Now there are accusations of corporate espionage.
The months-long battle between rival brewers MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, which already has generated a few hundred motions, exhibits and other court filings, continues to take new turns.
The latest: Anheuser-Busch claims MillerCoors, which operates a brewery in Milwaukee, stole its recipes and other trade secrets.
In a document filed Thursday in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin, the brewer of Bud Light claims a MillerCoors brewmaster, Josh Edgar, tapped an Anheuser-Busch employee for information on ingredients for the company’s beers.
And MillerCoors, according to Anheuser-Busch, ended up with photos of the recipes for Bud Light and Michelob Ultra – recipes AB said are “highly confidential, proprietary, and trade secret information.”
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Edgar is a former brewer at Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Cartersville, Georgia, and maintained relationships with people still there, the filing says. It says Edgar reached out to a current AB employee, texting back and forth about whether Bud Light contained enzymes, whether Busch beer used dextrose and other subjects.
“Mr. Edgar specifically told this AB employee that he was being asked for this information by MillerCoors’s senior management,” the filing says.
The text exchanges occurred shortly before and after February’s Super Bowl.
That, of course, is when Anheuser-Busch unveiled a multimillion-dollar ad campaign needling MillerCoors for using corn syrup in Miller Lite and Coors Light, touching off a court battle that continues to rage.
MillerCoors sued, alleging false advertising, and has carried the field so far.
In May, a U.S. district judge denied Anheuser-Busch’s motion to dismiss the case and issued a preliminary injunction barring the brewer from using the words “corn syrup” in ads and on social media without providing more context. Early last month, the judge extended the preliminary ban to Anheuser-Busch’s packaging.
Firing back, AB now says its rival should be barred from accessing or disclosing the “trade secret information” it allegedly misappropriated and should be ordered to immediately return it – as well as pay damages.
MillerCoors spokesman Adam Collins said by email Thursday that the firm “respects confidential information and takes any contrary allegations seriously.”
“But if the ingredients are a secret,” he added, “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?”
“As for their tired claims about corn syrup, the same residual elements they are talking about are also found in Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. If this is their argument, it’s no wonder they have lost three rulings in this case already.”
In its filing, Anheuser-Busch said recipes provide much more information than the ingredients it lists publicly for its beers. The recipes specify such proprietary details as the types of barley and hops used in Bud Light and Michelob Ultra, how the ingredients are mixed and, in the case of hops, where they come from, the filing said.
“Hops give the unique flavor profile of each of these beers, and for this reason all hopping information is particularly sensitive,” it said.
Anheuser-Busch also noted in its filing that corn syrup is among the ingredients listed for Miller Lite and Coors Light on the MillerCoors website. “Corn syrup sugars and byproducts are present in the finished Miller Lite and Coors Light beers,” Anheuser-Busch said.
MillerCoors disputes that.
“Corn syrup is a brewing adjunct, serving the same basic function to feed yeast as rice does in Bud Light,” Collins said Thursday. “It is consumed during the brewing process and corn syrup is not in the final beer.”
Follow Rick Romell on Twitter: @RickRomell