Wow. It's been over a year since I last posted and boy have I learned a lot since then.
Not only have I honed my processes on my brewing equipment to maintain consistency but I've added more equipment to make the processes faster and the beer better. Also lots of reading and researching on the importance of things like water and proper yeast pitching have been a key factor. Listening to podcasts from The Brewing Network has helped tremendously. I've learned more from the short time of listening to these shows than I have from reading the various conflicting opinions on homebrewing forums.
Some of the things that I've found to be vital in making good beer:
Fermentation is probably the most crucial element of making beer. Proper fermentation temps are a must. Too warm and you produce unwanted fusel alcohols and esters which can make your beer taste like turpentine. Too cold a temp and you get lagged fermentation and improper yeast growth which will also affect the taste of the beer.
I bought an old chest freezer on Craigslist and a temp controller from Amazon. Along with a small heating pad I can maintain consistent fermentation temperature at any temp I want. Ferment at lager temps? No problem. Ramp up the temp on my ale after several days into fermentation to reduce diacetyl? No problem. Can't say enough how much this has helped my beers.
Pitching the right amount of yeast is right up there with proper fermentation. Too little of a pitch and the yeast get stressed and attenuation is poor. Too much yeast and the flavor of your beer suffers. Either way it usually ends up producing crappy beer.
The Yeast Pitching Rate Calculator at MrMalty.com is a great tool to help you pitch the perfect amount of yeast for your beer.
Making yeast starters is helpful in pitching the proper amount of yeast. With a starter you can use less vials of yeast and you can assure the vitality of the yeast. Using a stir plate with your starter is even better. I made a stir plate out of a computer fan and a Tupperware container. I can now make super yeast starters that make my yeast happy and get my fermentation rolling in no time.
The quality of the water being used and the pH of the mash is also a huge factor in making good beer. I contacted my local municipal water supplier and got a report on exactly what was in my water. Knowing what key elements are missing (or what there is too much of) helped me to dial in my water by adding minerals or diluting with distilled water.
Checking the pH of the mash and adjusting helps with the efficiency of the mash and helps reduce and astringents that would cause bad flavors.
I use the EZ Water Calculator. My water has excessive calcium and is hard but the sulfate is low. I can add gypsum to increase sulfate and lower mash pH but too much gypsum and I have too much calcium. My adjustment is to add a slight amount of gypsum and use a small amount of lactic acid to reduce mash pH.
Other things I've learned
Grain to water ratio is not an important factor when mashing. Use what volume of water is easiest. I always use 4 gallons of strike water no matter what the grain bill is. The sparge amount will vary depending on the size of the grain bill but having a consistent strike volume makes it easier and I hit my target mash temp every time.
There is almost always no reason for a secondary. I used to think it was important to transfer the beer off of the yeast after primary fermentation. I just heard that it was "bad to keep the beer on the yeast!" The yeast actually cleans up the beer after fermentation reducing diacetyl (the nasty buttery flavor you don't want in your beer). Another myth is that this helps clear your beer. Beer doesn't clear any faster in a secondary container than it does sitting in the primary. Matter of fact you may just stir up the yeast when transferring and cause it to clear slower. Also any time beer is transferred from one container to another the risk of infection goes up. You also risk oxidizing the beer. For this reason dry hopping should also be done in the primary. Just throw the hops in the fermenter (the best time is right as fermentation is almost complete) and you'll avoid adding oxygen.
I let me beers sit in the primary fermenter until they are done then transfer to a keg. The only time you might want a secondary is if you're adding fruit or some other additive after fermentation is complete. I still don't use a secondary for this. For instance, I used cacao nibs recently in a chocolate stout and just threw them in the primary.
Brewing different styles, attempting to clone commercial beers, experimenting with different grains, hops and yeast has taught me many things as well.
I'm hoping to learn even more in the next year to come!