I spent a few days in Boston a couple of weeks ago, and had the pleasure of visiting the original Samuel Adams brewery for one of their free brewery and tasting tours. There, I learned, among many other things: that the actual Sam Adams was probably a cool guy, the dude with the really long beard and the overalls in all the commercials actually works there, and that the original Boston brewery only produces about five percent of their output. (The rest is brewed in Pennslyvania and my hometown of Cincinnati...guess I didn't have to go so far for a tour.)
They were also very generous with the samples, and walked our group through the beer appraisal process used in competitions across the world. We started with the traditional Boston lager, brewed with only four ingredients [water, two kinds of malted barley, and noble hops; pictured below], then to some of their seasonal brews, and one test brew currently only available in the Boston brewery.
Here's how to do it:
Step One: Color and Clarity - Hold the glass up to a light source, and notice the color and how how the beer absorbs the light. Place two fingers behind the glass, and wiggle them to note the clarity of the beer.
Step Two - Aroma: Sip the beer just a bit and then swirl it around in the glass. Stick your nose in the glass, and note where the aroma hits your senses - in front of your nose? In the back? On the roof of your mouth?
Step Three - Mouth Feel: Now, take an average drink of beer, and feel the body of the beer in your mouth. Note the weight and density and the carbonation level, as they relate to water (heavy, flat) and champagne (very carbonated. light).
Step Four - Flavors: Taste the beer again, and try to grab the flavor profile. What flavors do you experience? Sam Adams Boston Lager, for example, has what they've dubbed a 'three-second profile'; it starts with a caramel-y sweetness from the barley, then a citrus flavor from the hops, then a bitter dry finish.
Step Five - Overall Appraisal: Now, take a drink, and reflect back on steps one through four. Can you experience them all at once? Yes? Good. Take it down, pass it around, and order another.
*** Sorry for the poor step-by-step photos - they're phone pics, and the tasting room is kept pretty dark for that quintessential pub feel.