BREESE • Bill Meier flips over an empty Frostie Root Beer bottle and checks the embossed numbers.
"This one's from '69," he says. As in 1969. As in a soda bottle that's been in use for more than 40 years.
"I've seen some dated from the '40s," Meier says.
The returnable bottles aren't the only vintage items in this part of the Excel Bottling Co. plant. The bottles pass through a mid-1900s sterilizing machine before another old machine called a Dixie fills them with cane-sugar-sweetened syrup and filtered carbonated water. The Dixie operates at what was once a gee-whiz rate of 24 bottles a minute.
In a time when huge multinational soda companies are producing cane-sugar-sweetened versions of products and calling them "throwbacks," this tiny operation might also be considered a throwback. But it's the way they've always done things at Excel, ever since Meier's grandparents — Edward "Lefty" Meier and Catherine "Caddy" Bruegge Meier — founded the business in 1936 by purchasing a used bottling machine with reward money that Lefty received for catching a bank robber.
And while the front part of the plant hasn't changed much, various additions — including a disposable-bottle filler that runs at up to 320 bottles per minute — have accommodated growth in production from about 100,000 cases a year in 1970 to the equivalent of about 500,000 cases today.
During all that time, Excel's No. 1 product has been Ski.
Many people believe that Ski originated with Excel, but in fact it's another company's licensed product, as are several of the sodas Excel bottles, including Frostie.
"Ski was the last franchise we added, in the early '60s," Meier says. "It's a trademark of the Double-Cola Co. of Chattanooga. In the late '50s, a bottler in Highland was doing Sundrop, and my grandfather said that we needed to get a citrus soda of our own."
Ski soon reached something of a cult status in Southern Illinois, including a reputation as a hangover cure.
"The truth behind that, as we believe it, is that Ski has caffeine in it and the No. 1 ingredient is sugar, plus it has orange juice and lemon juice, so it probably has some impact in boosting you up and making you feel better," Meier says.
Meier adds that many residents of Breese and its environs still use Ski as a proxy for their morning coffee. "There are a lot of people in this town who go to Dairy King and get a fountain Ski to start their day," Meier says.
At the end of the day, they might also indulge in a 'snoot shooter," a shot of whiskey chased from a specialty two-compartment glass by a dose of Ski.
As Meier tells it, his grandfather never really intended for Excel to be passed on to future generations.
"When he ran the company, it grew very little every year," Meier says. "I think he had the view that once he passed away, we'd just shut it down."
But near the end of Lefty's life, his son Paul — Bill's father — took early retirement from a career at Aetna Insurance and came back into the family business. Bill, now 44, earned an electrical engineering degree from Washington University and worked in Chicago for a while, but ultimately also moved back to Breese and joined the business. He recently moved to St. Louis County but still commutes to Breese almost daily.
After Lefty's death in 1996, Caddy continued working for the business.
"She'd bill all the grocery stores by hand," Meier says. "When I got here in 2002, she was still adding everything up by hand."
Automation was soon added, but Caddy continued doing the books until she was 97 and answered the phone for another year after that. She died in 2009 at the age of 99.
Meier's office is now in a downstairs room of the house Caddy lived in until her death. The house, which had belonged to Caddy's own grandmother, was already almost 100 years old and had no heat, indoor plumbing or kitchen when Lefty and Caddy refurbished it about the same time that they started Excel.
Excel now has 15 full- and part-time employees who produce 14 flavors, including three under the Excel name and three recently added fruit flavors — strawberry-kiwi, cherry and blueberry — under a new Breese brand. Other flavors are produced based on licensing agreements from existing and defunct companies.
Further confusing the branding issue, some of the sodas' bottles bear completely unrelated names, such as Clem's, reflecting Excel's purchase of returnable bottles from companies that have gone out of business. (The product inside is still Excel's soda.)
The majority of the returnable-bottle-soda inventory is sold directly to consumers within two weeks of bottling from the side door of the plant on Clinton Street at South Broadway. Sales hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays except Wednesday and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. Cases of 24 bottles sell from $13 to $15.
In addition to distribution in and around Breese, Excel products are also available in scattered locations on the Missouri side of the river — at the Culinaria downtown, Blues City Deli in Benton Park, select Motomart convenience stores and all Straub's stores.
"We definitely think our next growth area is in St. Louis," Meier says.
With Excel already having received a boost from the recent revival in interest for cane-sugar-sweetened sodas, Meier hopes that the environmentally friendly aspect of returnable bottles will also be a selling point.
"We're betting that returnables will make a comeback," Meier says. "If you truly want to 'go green,' it makes sense to use returnable bottles."
Toward that end, Meier has plans to complement the Dixie with another second-hand machine now sitting idle, a returnable-bottle filler that's newer and faster. And when that happens, he hopes to make the biggest leap yet in additions to Excel's product line.