We’re not going to lie: we were a little leery when we first saw that family owned, southern Illinois soda maker Excel Bottling Company was venturing into the world of beer and starting a brewery. At the time, we wondered: Just because you own a bottling line and it’s easy to start making beer, does that necessarily mean you should?
The Breese, Illinois based company was well-known for its citrus-y soda Ski. But is making good soda enough of a pedigree to make good beer? It is if you bring in the right people to do it, which is exactly what Excel did when it hired longtime homebrewer Tony Toenjes to serve as brewmaster and lured Rod Burguiere away from Stone Brewing to serve as assistant brewmaster.
A change in state law also helped jump-start Excel’s brewing operation, according to an article in the Belleville News Democrat, when the Illinois legislature pass the Craft Brewer Act in 2011.
“We’d been thinking about making beer for a long time, but had to hold on until that changed,” [owner] Bill [Meier] said. “Now, we can self-distribute, can sell it ourselves. So, we run our soda trucks, that’s how we can deliver beer, too.”
Excel brewed its first beer last fall and currently has four beers in its stable; a hefeweizen, a citrus-y pale ale, a winter ale and blonde ale – and plans for a few others.
The brewery was kind enough to supply us with samples of its beers when Meier made a recent jaunt to Chicago for some meetings in the area, and to say we were pleasantly surprised by their offerings is an understatement.
Excel Citra, an homage to Ski soda, is reminiscent of homemade Shandys that Ryan made a few summers ago. Our Shandy’s were made using equal parts Sam Adams Boston Lager and lemonade. The two combined for a sweet, lemony drink with a better-than-average body and a pleasant hop-bite in the finish.
We continue to argue over whether or not the name “Citra” refers to the hop variety or the aforementioned Ski; but it’s possible we could meet directly in the middle. Citra is full of bright orange and lemon flavors accented by an effervescent carbonation. We’re pretty sure you can smell the pulp of freshly squeezed orange juice and taste the acidity of a lemon with each sip. A floral hoppiness punctuates this easy drinking beer.
Excel Shoal Creek Wheat is brewed using water from a nearby creek and purports to be brewed following the German Purity Law of 1516. Frankly, if you told us this beer was brewed in Germany we wouldn’t be surprised. Giving off a nose full of banana, Nilla Wafers and heavy cream this German-style hefeweizen is an unexpected treat in a traditional, and sometimes unappreciated style. The body is creamy and hearty with notes of clove, banana, flaky buttermilk biscuit and tart lemon.
Excel Shoal Creek Winter Ale: same water, totally different beer. This beer was brewed with anise, nutmeg and vanilla – upping the ante on your run-of-the-mill amber ale. The nose is all raisin bread, while the body yields far more complex flavors; nutmeg, clove, orange peel, caramel, toffee and dark cherries. Call us crazy, but this might be Great Lakes Christmas Ale’s lighter little brother, with easy-drinking flavors that compare to the legendary Christmas Ale while having a lower ABV.
Excel Golden Brew, a blonde ale, has just enough going on to set itself apart from your average blonde ale with a nose of wheat toast and honey and flavors of grassy hops rounded out by hints of sweet strawberries in the finish. Crisp like a lager, it’s bready and grainy and oh-so perfect for summer.
Currently you can only find Excel’s beers in southern Illinois, most notably St. Clair and Clinton counties in Illinois and across the Mississippi River in Missouri, but maybe – just maybe – Meier’s meetings here were fruitful enough to soon bring Excel’s beers north of 80.
Let’s hope so – these beers are worth hunting down if you happen to be headed towards STL.