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This St. Louis-Area Bottler Sells Soda The Old-Fashioned Way

The motto of the Excel Bottling Company in Breese, Ill., is “Good Things Don’t Have To Change.”

And they really mean it.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

Here, on the corner of Broadway and Clinton streets, four generations of the Meier family have been selling soda for nearly 80 years.

They make it the old-fashioned way -- with pure cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup -- using  vintage bottling equipment that was already “secondhand” when it was purchased in 1936.

While soda giant Pepsi made news recently with a throwback version called “Pepsi Made With Regular Sugar,” every day is throwback day at Excel, which also uses returnable glass bottles.

That’s returnable -- as in customers bring back the bottles, which are washed, refilled and sold again. And again. And Again.

Excel claims to be the last soda bottler in Illinois and Missouri -- and one of only a handful in the U.S. -- that still uses returnable glass bottles.

Also returnable -- customers who come to the plant’s side door to buy cases of 10-ouncers. It's a local tradition -- especially on Saturday mornings, when pickups and cars pull up to the door in a steady stream to exchange their empties for fulls.

Excel makes more than a dozen flavors of soda, but the biggest seller, by far, is Ski -- a citrusy concoction that you’ve probably never heard of unless you live in Clinton County. Maybe it’s all that pure cane sugar -- or the caffeine -- but Ski fans are cult-like in their devotion to this stuff.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Rhonda Pollmann stocks up.

Rhonda Pollmann of Breese has been drinking Ski since she was a child. She stops by weekly to stock up.

“It’s refreshing. It just gives you the kick that you need a lot of times,” she said, cheerfully. “There’s nothing better than a good, cold Ski on a Saturday morning.’’

Clyde Strotheide, a grain farmer from nearby Beaver Prairie, makes a Ski run once a month. He drinks Ski instead of coffee.

My wife doesn’t drink coffee, and you’re not gonna make coffee for one person at 5 o’clock in the morning,’’ he said. “So I take my cold Ski with me and I’m off.”

Excel also distributes Ski in cans or plastic bottles that are packaged by another bottler, but Strotheide insists on the locally produced 10-ounce returnable glass bottles. He prefers the taste and says returnables are better for the environment.

“You don’t have the plastic. You don’t have the cans. You don’t have the litter along the roads,’’ Strotheide said. “The bottles come home.”

Local Pop Culture

At Excel, it’s all about preserving a bit of local “pop” culture.

Or, as they’d say here in Ski Country: soda culture.

Bill Meier, general manager, says that brand loyalty is passed down through the generations. Ski is also on tap at soda fountains at local convenience stores and restaurants. School kids from surrounding communities take field trips to the plant to watch the vintage bottling lines.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Bill and Paul Meier.

“I’ll be at the plant on Sunday mornings, and people in their wedding dresses will show up and take a photo in front of the Ski plant,’’ he said.

One man, who now lives in Wyoming, drives to Breese once a year to stock up on Ski. Breese is about 40 miles east of St. Louis near Carlyle Lake.

Some people just show up at the door because they've heard about these bottled sodas with old-timey names: Lucky Club Cola, Frostie Root Beer or Million Dollar Grape.

Meier’s grandfather acquired the franchise to produce Ski in 1961 from the Double Cola Company of Chattanooga, Tenn., and the soda quickly became the most popular drink in Clinton County, he said.

Ski was not invented in Breese, though Excel is one of the last bottlers to produce it, Bill Meier said. And Excel does its part to maintain brand loyalty.

“On our end, we have continually made [Ski] exactly the same way,’’ he said. “When they said, ‘We’re going to change the formula to high-fructose corn syrup,’ my grandfather just said, ‘No. I’ve made it with pure cane sugar, and I like how it tastes and I’m staying with it.’ ‘’

Though switching to corn syrup might be good for Excel’s bottom line, “that’s not us,’’ Meier said.

According to Meier, cans and plastic bottles of Ski sold by Excel are produced by an out-of-state bottler using high-fructose corn syrup -- which probably explains the difference in taste, noted by Ski connoisseurs.

“One of our goals if we ever put in a can line -- we’re always going to stay with pure cane sugar. We just don’t do high fructose,’’ he said.

It Started With A Bank Robbery

Excel was founded during the Great Depression by Meier’s grandparents Edward “Lefty” Meier and Catherine Meier. The company’s office is still located in the house, built in 1875, where his grandmother grew up. Her family had run a tavern and grocery store at the location.

It was the summer of 1936, and Lefty had earned a reward for catching a bank robber in Germantown, Ill., where he lived at the time.

“He was on the street walking and a guy robbed a bank and he knew the fella,’’ said Paul Meier -- Bill’s father – who is president of Excel. “The guy said, ‘Oh, no.’ He knew he was caught. [Lefty Meier] got a reward, and he started this business.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Fourth-generation: Bill Meier's son -- William Meier -- works at Excel.

Paul Meier worked at Excel when he was growing up and returned to help run the plant after "Lefty" became ill. His brother -- Joe Meier, Excel's vice president -- still works on the line, checking the glass bottles for imperfections. Bill Meier's siblings -- David Meier and sister Kathleen Meier Ludwig -- are sales managers. 

When Excel started in the 1930s, the soda industry was made up of small, independent bottling plants that primarily served their own communities, Paul Meier said. Flavored sodas like root beer, strawberry, orange and black cherry, were the top sellers. The recipes were developed by bottlers who licensed the brands to companies that agreed to make and market them exclusively in their territories.

Few of those independents remain in business today. Soda giants Pepsi and Coca Cola have large facilities that serve multi-state areas.

Excel is one of a dwindling number of “mom and pop” bottlers left in the United States and one of about a dozen that belong to the New England Independent Bottlers Association.

Bill Meier believes the trend to buy locally sourced products has been a boost for Excel.

“It means something when you come here and buy a bottle of soda, and see how it’s made,’’ he said. “Big factories aren’t going to let you walk in. The owner or general manager is not going to show you around. I think people appreciate that. They know where it’s made. What’s in it.’’

Brewing For The Future

Excel employs 24 employees, including part-time workers. Some have worked at the plant for decades.

Bill Meier says many of Excel’s employees live in Breese, and in the summer ride bicycles and mopeds to work.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Randy Gehrs works on a bottling line that was purchased used in 1936. Gehrs has worked at the plant for nearly 40 years.

The older bottling equipment, including an ancient-looking contraption known as a Dixie filler, is used to make small batches of soda. Some of those are packaged for bottling companies that no longer produce their own brands. At full speed, the old line delivers 24 bottles a minute. Ski and bigger batches of flavors are produced on the “new” line -- secondhand equipment that was built in the 1970s and produces 200 bottles a minute. Excel also makes syrup for soda fountains.

One of the challenges is keeping vintage equipment -- as sturdy as it is – properly maintained and running, Meier said. Another challenge: finding new sources of returnable glass bottles, which are no longer manufactured in the United States.

“The bottles they make in the United States are meant to be used once and thrown away,’’ Meier said. “So they’re throwaway -- just like a beer bottle -- thinner in glass and not made to hold up. Returnable bottles are a lot heavier and have an applied label that won’t come off in the wash cycle.”

Excel uses “orphan” bottles: old bottles from companies no longer in business. Because returnables are still used in Mexico and South America, new bottles for big seller Ski can still be bought from suppliers, he said.

Meier, who has an engineering degree from Washington University, says Excel’s employees know what they’re supposed to do and they get it done.

Like other members of the family, he worked elsewhere before returning to Excel. And, yes, he likes his job.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

“I walk around with amazement,’’ he said, smiling.  “Everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. The soda’s coming off the line. The trucks are going out. And the customers are happy.’’

Meier said that at least 80 percent of what Excel produces is sold within about 50 miles of Breese. The company’s products can now be found in some St. Louis restaurants and stores.

Two years ago, Excel entered the craft beer business. That side of the business – which is housed in a separate facility – is called Excel Brewery. Meier said that with soda consumption probably as high as it will be, Excel sees beer as a future growth area for the family business. 

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.