So despite my best attempts at RDWHAHBing, I was beginning to worry.
My first batch (Midwest's Irish Stout extract kit) was brewed before I understood the importance of temperature control. It fermented on the counter, ambient temperature of 75, fermometer reached the low 80s. At bottling day, it didn't taste good. It was very astringent and hot, which I now attribute to fusel alcohol. After 3 weeks in the bottle, it still wasn't great (though getting a little better). Kinda deflating.
My second batch (Midwest Coffee Stout extract kit) I attempted to use a swamp cooler. It certainly fermented cooler, but wasn't as smooth as I had hoped (I ran out of ice a few times trying to keep it constant in the 60s). At bottling day it tasted... alright. Better than the Irish stout, for sure, but it wasn't anything to write home about. I had heard that stouts sometimes needed bottle conditioning time to let the flavors come together properly, so I wasn't losing hope, but it certainly wasn't the win I was looking for. That one has only been in the bottle for 2 weeks, and I am forcing myself to wait until at least 3 weeks before I crack one.
At that point I decided to get serious about temperature control and build a fermentation chamber out of a chest freezer. But the thought of not brewing until the chamber was built was too much, so I decided to get more creative about my brewing in the meantime. Maintaining low temperatures in this house was proving to be difficult, so why not tailor my brew to my environment and brew a Belgian? Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale likes to be warm. So I brewed a Golden Strong Ale and just let it do its thing at room temperature.
Tonight I realized I was running low on fermenters (also have a saison, a scottish export, and a bitter going at the moment). So to ensure I had room for this weekend's brew session, I decided to rack the Golden Strong Ale to secondary (not because I think the secondary is necessary -- only because I wanted that Better Bottle). And while I was racking anyway, might as well take a hydro reading and sample. Boy, is it good. Crystal clear, light golden color, fruity, peppery, floral, alcoholic (8.5%) but not abrasively so. Everything I wanted it to be.
It felt pretty good to taste a great beer that I made myself, but it felt even better knowing that all my time spent obsessively reading and learning about brewing paid off big time when I was able to successfully diagnose the issue and work around it.
So I just wanted to say thanks to everyone on the forums who have taught us all so much. And to anyone else who might be struggling, hang in there, take meticulous notes, and keep on brewing!