BREESE — Making beer takes time and patience. Things Bill Meier at Excel Bottling Co. knows a lot about.
"If we needed to, we could start up the machines and make some Ski today," he said of the company's signature soda. "Can't do that with beer."
It takes at least 30 days to brew. And sometimes much longer if you want something unique.
Since 1936, Bill and his family have been making and bottling soda, including Ski, Frostie Root Beer and Lucky Club Cola. They debuted Excel's first craft beer last fall, after the state of Ilinois finally amended a law, allowing craft beer-makers to also distribute their own product.
"We'd been thinking about making beer for a long time, but had to hold on until that changed," Bill said. "Now, we can self-distribute, can sell it ourselves. So, we run our soda trucks, that's how we can deliver beer, too."
On a recent Friday morning, Bill and his crew, including Brewmaster Tony Toenjes and Assistant Brewmaster Rod Burguiere, watched the first run of 12-ounce bottles of Excel Citra snake and clack their way through the plant on a narrow conveyor belt.
"It's a golden beer, light, with natural lemon and orange flavors and a little hops," said Tony, of Belleville. He's been brewmaster since last March, but spent the year before as a consultant "to get ready."
Already on the shelves in local supermarkets and liquor stores are Excel's other beer products: Golden Brew, Shoal Creek Wheat, and for only a short while longer, Shoal Creek Winter Ale.
"It has hints of vanilla bean, nutmeg and anise in it," said Tony, 57, who came up with the formula in his lab.
Shoal Creek Wheat, the first beer to come off the line last fall, sold out in three days, said Bill. "The next batch took about a week."
If you look closely at the label, designed in part by Bill, you'll see twin symbols of loyalty: The Meier lion from the family crest and Breese's tree logo.
"We'll always be local," said Bill. Excel beer, sold only in Illinois, is available at metro-east Schnucks, Grappa Growlers and Vespers in Belleville, and Randall's in Fairview Heights. Six-packs range from $6.09 to $6.49. Randall's says it still has some of the Winter Ale. Tony will host a tasting at 7 p.m. March 14 at Vespers.
It's a compact operation at Excel. A "brewhouse" was added to the existing main building and houses giant stainless-steel vats, steam and charcoal-filtered water lines, a hopper for the grain and other machinery.
From last September to the end of 2012, Excel brewed 280 barrels of beer, which translates into 3,500 cases or 84,000 bottles. So far in 2013, 100 barrels have been produced.
The bottling operation is next to the brewhouse, so close you can hear the brown glass bottles clattering as they pass from the filler to where liquid nitrogen is shot into each bottle to remove any oxygen before it is capped.
"We bottle every other week. We have a good stock now," Tony said. "There are no preservatives in beer. It's not pasteurized, so it has a short shelf life."
Bill wants to offer some of Excel's bottling experience to small beermakers.
"We hope to contract with other craft brewers," he said.
Recycling is a big part of Excel, a 77-year-old company. They sell a good portion of soda in returnable bottles.
In time, "We want to do the same for beer," Bill said. "That will make it cheaper to buy. You can save maybe $4 to $5 on a case."
Tony and Rod treat the brew like doting about-to-be parents, checking the vats, lines, temperature and contents to make sure everything is going the way it should, waiting for a "born on" day down the line. While Excel Citra takes 30 days to ferment, a lager takes three times longer.
"Right now, we are brewing Carlyle Lake Lager," said Tony, a chemist by profession, as well as a home brewer. He also does quality control on the beer and soda.
Rod, 30, joined Tony in the brewhouse in January. Originally from Alton, he did a stint in the Navy, landed in California, married and worked for the 11th largest craft brewery in the country, Stone Brewery in North San Diego County.
Tony and Bill were impressed by his credentials and recipes. For Rod, the job opportunity was in the right location.
"I really wanted to come back," he said. "I liked California, but it wasn't home. It's nice to be back."
The idea of helping make great beer in the metro-east appealed to him.
"In San Diego, there are so many craft breweries. Here, it's A-B (Anheuser Busch) country. Craft brewing is still in its infancy."
The two have planned well ahead with what's in another vat. It's marked Ryeday the 13th. It's a quirky name for the beer that will be released Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, the brewery's first anniversary.
"It's a 'big beer,'" said Tony. Its alcohol content will be 10 percent to 12 percent and it will be sold in 750-mililter bottles.
Made with 30 percent German rye, after fermenting, the beer will wait out its arrival, stored for about six months in 10 barrels that once held rye whiskey.
Bill grins and shakes his head as he sips some of the new Excel Citra.
"You know, Highland and Trenton and Belleville all had breweries. It's a big circle that goes around."