Sitting on my desk is a bottle of Darkest Hour Black Cherry soda that I’ve been sipping on all morning. It’s the latest creation from the Excel Bottling Co. in Breese, Illinois and a tribute to the total solar eclipse happening later this Summer.
While visiting this small, southern Illinois community of about 4,400 – I decided to pop into the best known spot in town for a quick tour. If there was ever any proof that Excel Bottling and it’s signature product, SKI soda is a hit with locals – look no further than my Bill On The Road Facebook page. A simple posting about the soda maker went viral through cyber space in less than 48 hours generating nearly 100,000 views and hundreds of shares.
Walking into General Manager Bill Meier’s office, I met Mitch Reed of Tell City, Indiana. Mr. Reed, who lives three hours away from Breese commutes into town each week because “I just love working here”. The sentiment was shared from other employees but the real love is from the people that consume the tasty beverages Excel produces. Made with “real pure cane sugar” – the sampling of flavors I left with included Gooey Butter Cake, Strawberry Kiwi Breese and Million Dollar Grape. A bottle of Lucky Club Cola was a surprise as it’s my go-to drink when I visit Sauce On The Side, a favorite Saint Louis area restaurant.
Mr. Meir, whose Grandfather started Excel, jokes that in Breese alone “45,000 of our sodas are consumed each week” A Facebook follower noted the answer to the obvious question – there are only two dentists in town.
“My Grandpa turned in a bank robber and collected reward money that paid for his first bottling machine in 1936” says Meir. Today, Excel is one of the few “mom and pop” bottling enterprises left in the country. As we take our tour (complete with hair nets) I notice the large, expensive looking equipment for washing bottles, attaching labels and moving product. Meir notes “we actually get pretty good deals on equipment because so many bottling companies have closed down. They tend to sell stuff to us fairly cheap.”
What’s most interesting about the entire process is how locals return their used bottles in exchange for a brand new case of product. Call it “recycling before recycling was cool” – but some of the bottles still in use date back to the 1950’s. In fact, a quick glance at the bottom of the bottle tells you the date it was made. I randomly found one from 1972, another from 1964.
The process of bottling soda has evolved to more automation and less manual labor than it was when Excel first opened it’s doors. “We use 90,000 pounds of sugar a month and back then someone had to physically pick up every bag of it.”
SKI, the most popular product Excel bottles, originated in Chattanooga, TN back in 1956. The brand is currently owned by the Double-Cola beverage company.
I made an appearance on Saturday, June 24 at the Breese Public Library for a book signing and presentation to promote my new book 100 Things To Do In America Before You Die. We had a standing room only audience and I met lots of wonderful folks from Breese and the surrounding region! You can still get a copy of the book through billontheroad.com or by clicking HERE.