At the time I was very new (and still am) and just wanted to see what peoples thoughts were on the brewing process. As I build up my equipment, where should my priorities lie. Better fermentation vessels? Proper mash and boiling equipment? Better temperature control? Better knowledge of pH and water chemistry? What do people find to be the most important things in brewing?
Thats all. Just curiosity.
Yes to all the above.
I used to work with a friend who was the editor at the American Society for Quality. One of the things i learned about was continuous quality improvement.
I've applied that to my brewing. Each time I brew--every single time--I try to do something better than before. Every time.
That means all of the above. Now, in fairness, I'm at a point in my life where I can buy equipment to do this, that earlier (when the kids were still in school) I didn't have the excess resources to do this. So it's not an indictment of anyone whose finances at this time cannot support doing it.
But I was convinced, and still am, that excellence in brewing is the accumulation of small edges that over time, add up to...excellent beer.
So it's hard for me to say what the most important thing is. It's all important. As soon as you start making compromises in your process, you begin to go in the opposite direction from what you want. And this assumes others have the same goals as I do, which may or may not be the case.
I want to control every variable I can in brewing, as much as I can. That means proper pH in the mash, best temperatures during the mash, maybe a step mash, reducing exposure to oxygen as much as I can, getting the proper fermentation temps, and even the type of fermenter I use.
Can you make good beer with very simple equipment? Sure. I've done it, and I've had beers from others who have done it. But the same philosophy obtains. Do the very best you can, and keep trying to improve.
Of all the things you mentioned above, if I had to pick one, I'd pick fermentation vessel. The other factors aren't as difficult to control, but being able to control fermentation (esp. temps) and to even close up the fermenter as fermentation nears the end to carbonate the beer....well, I'd never go back.
I have a Spike CF-10, and it's great, but it's not the only good fermenter out there. What you need is something you can use to control things like temp, oxygen ingress, pressure fermenting, and pressure transfers to kegs.