WINCHESTER, Va. – When Lt. Col. Rusty Sears came to the Middle East District as deputy commander in August 2010, he brought with him four years of experience in engineer positions and as chief of Construction for U.S. Army Central, with tours in Kuwait and Iraq and frequent trips to Afghanistan. He is a walking encyclopedia on the district's military projects throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations, often providing project background or context that few others in the district have. He is passionate about each member of the district team contributing directly to our mission to support our nation.
But if you really want to see Sears' expression light up, ask him about another of his passions – his garden and his lesser known hobby of making wine, cider and beer.
Growing up, Sears' father often talked about wine. He had attended several wine appreciation courses while pursuing his Ph.D. and passed down an admiration of the process and product, igniting a spark that would become a passion for his son.
The senior Sears was in the first generation to leave his family's 500-acre farm in Michigan, but he never fully left farming behind. This family tradition planted the seed in Sears who has continued to maintain an extensive garden throughout his life.
Following in his father's footsteps, Sears took wine appreciation while pursuing a degree in biochemistry at Mississippi State University.
"Of all the stuff I learned in college, (wine appreciation) is probably the stuff I remember the most," said Sears.
Sears put his knowledge of wine to good use while stationed in Germany. He found himself in a rich wine-producing river valley where the Rhine meets the Mosel, discussing wine with his counterparts in the German Army.
His battalion commander discovered his talent and designated him the resident wine expert. He was handed the responsibility of choosing wines for battalion events, which required him to taste test many different varietals from multiple vineyards. A job Sears describes with a measured amount of sarcasm as being "very difficult."
When he returned to the U.S., he wanted to start making his own wine. That, of course, required growing or having access to grapes, so he decided instead to try his hand at brewing beer. Sears began brewing in 1997; at that time he was a captain teaching with the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Just as he was developing into a skilled brewer, he was forced to put the hobby aside for several years because of conflicts and deployments.
In 2006, Sears decided to start brewing again. The pivotal moment arrived as he stood in the commissary at Ft. McPherson, Ga., contemplating a special sale on apples. An opportunity had presented itself, and the result was a hard apple cider that received some very positive reviews from Sears' friends. "It was awesome," he said.
Unfortunately, Sears did not record his techniques with this first attempt at hard cider and is still trying to recreate that perfect first batch.
Since joining the Middle East District, Sears has shifted his focus to winemaking.
"With beer, there are a lot of ingredients you can add to make it better," said Sears. "But with wine, there is a whole lot more chemistry involved to make it good."
Sears has planted and started growing 18 apple, six peach, and four pear trees to add variety to his wine flavors. He also has 20 Cabernet Franc and ten Chardonel grape vines. Each tree and vine takes about three years to produce good fruit. He currently uses prepared grape juice to better his techniques while he waits for his garden to produce fruit.
Sears is strongly influenced by – and envious of – the gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's house in Charlottesville, Va. He planted the same vintage apples that Jefferson grew on the grounds.
In addition to these trees, his garden also has black currants, kiwi, strawberries, blackberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and asparagus.
He also grows his own hops for brewing beer. He chose to grow five different varieties: nugget, cascade, fuggle, hallertauer, and kent golding. Sears said that hops can grow 15 feet in one year, and the buds of the bush that are used to brew beer are very light weight. Only three ounces of hops are needed to brew a five-gallon batch of beer, and last year, he grew a pound of hops.
Sears and his family purchased a house on seven-acres of land when they came to the area, choosing the house because it had two kitchens and plenty of room for gardening. He turned one of the kitchens into his brewery.
Sears has made stouts and various ales, including a spicy Christmas ale; and peach and watermelon wine. He has vinted dry and sweet red wine, as well as a Riesling. Pear cider is his next goal, and he hopes to eventually recreate the delicious hard apple cider he brewed on his first attempt.
Invoking the spirit (and spirits) of Jefferson again, Sears said the former president felt that good cider should never be consumed in the same year it is bottled. He hopes to find out if this makes the cider better some day, but hasn't yet been able to resist drinking his own brew within the first year.
Sears said that when brewing beer – from start-to-drink – the process can take from two to three weeks, but aging it longer brings out more flavor characteristics.
With wine, it can be consumed at the two month mark, but it is always made better with age. Additional fermentations and bacteria processing also enhance the flavor and the tannins.
Sears creates these libations, but he does not sell them. In many states in the U.S., individuals may produce limited amounts of wine and beer for personal consumption, but they may not sell alcohol without a proper license.