Summer is officially here, which means it’s perfectly acceptable to drink outside again. Whether you’re at a backyard barbecue or a baseball game, beer is often the drink of choice when the temps heat up. And what’s not to love? It’s cold, refreshing, and (usually) cheap. But with all of the different styles on the market, ordering a simple cerveza can get confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
A list of beers on tap at a bar can give you all kinds of anxiety. And without someone there to explain it all, you throw up your hands and order a Long Island Iced Tea instead. But fear not, we’ve decoded the differences between some of the most common types of beers so you can have a little more confidence the next time you want to order a cold one (or two).
All beers contain a combination of water, grain, yeast, and hops — the plant that preserves the beer and gives it its unique flavor. The distinguishing factor between the different types is how they are brewed, which affects the look and taste. Lagers and ales are different varieties that fall under the larger beer umbrella. In fact, IPAs are a subcategory of ales (more on that later).
Lager is the most common style of beer. It’s name comes from the German word, “lagern,” which means “to store.” Lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeast, and are left in cooler temperatures (45-55 degrees Fahrenheit) for weeks while the fermentation process takes place.
Lagers tend to have a light, crisp taste and a smooth, well-balanced flavor. They are often less bitter than other styles of beers. If you had to compare beer to wine, lager would be more similar to white wine. Pilsners and malt liquor are different styles within the lager category. Many of the most common brands of beer such as Heineken, Sapporo, and Budweiser can be classified as lagers. Lagers pair well with shellfish, grilled chicken or pork, and Mexican food.
Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast. Fermentation takes place in warm temperatures (between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit), which speeds up the process. For this reason, ales don’t have to be stored for long periods of time.
The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, and as a result, ales generally have a thick layer of foam (also known as the beer head) at the top.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and this is definitely true in the case of the IPA. India pale ale was invented by a London-based brewer for English troops stationed in India.
India’s warm climate was not ideal for making beer, and English brews would not survive the six-month journey journey at sea. So in the late 1700s, George Hodgson exported a strong pale ale to Englishmen in India. He added extra hops and increased the alcohol content, which helped preserve the beer over the long journey. The soldiers even claimed it had a better taste. IPAs gained popularity in the United States in the 1970s.
There are three styles of IPAs – American, English, and Double/Imperial. And while they don’t all taste the same, IPAs are often described as bitter. They pair well with spicy, salty, and grilled foods.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.