If you’ve ever noticed around this time of year the cases and bottles of beer decorated plainly with poinsettias and named Noche Buena, what you’ve seen is one of Mexico’s most eagerly awaited seasonal beers — and its only traditional Christmas beer.
The name literally means “good night,” but it actually refers to Christmas Eve, as the Spanish word for Christmas Eve is Nochebuena. The poinsettia is also a nochebuena, and its origins as a Christmas flower are Mexican.
This “good night” beer is as welcome in Mexican homes at this time of year as the aguinaldo (Christmas bonus) and the piñata.
Unlike the vast majority of commercial Mexican beers, Noche Buena is a dark bock, a class of beers that have their origins in Germany. They are dense and calorie-rich, dating back to the 14th or 15th century. As the story goes, German monks developed it to get through the winter and fasting periods, especially Lent.
This particular bock has a reddish-brown color with a thick head that holds up well, leaving a lattice on the glass as you drink it. The aroma is agreeable with notes of chocolate, caramel and red fruits. A sip will reveal flavor notes that also include prunes, toasted malts and herbal hops.
It finishes with a dry aftertaste. It is a low-hop beer, so it isn’t particularly bitter. In fact, I find it a bit sweet for my taste, but then I tend to go for very dry and hoppy beers like India pale ale.
Noche Buena is not considered anywhere near the same quality as European-produced bocks, but those who prefer it say they like it because it is neither too heavy nor too spicy. The alcohol level is 5.9% by volume.
Dark bocks can be produced year-round, but this particular beer is strongly associated with winter, available only between October and February. One reason is that this beer needs colder temperatures to brew and mature well. The second is that dark beers in general are associated with winter in Germany. But perhaps most important is the beer’s history in Mexico.
German immigrants to the country introduced beer to Mexicans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A novelty at first, it would eventually replace pulque as the working man’s drink as it was commercialized and seen as healthier and more modern.
Noche Buena is the first bock beer made in Mexico. Its history began in 1924 in Orizaba, Veracruz, when a group of Germans founded a brewery here and began making the bock for themselves. Eventually, they began giving the beer as gifts to coworkers and family. This created a demand among the general public, and the brewery began to make it as a seasonal specialty for winter, hence the name.
People all over Mexico drink Noche Buena, but it is most popular in the high mountains in the country’s center where December weather is colder overall than in most other places in the country.
Until 2011, the beer was available only in Mexico. Mexicans and others looking for a case would have to drive across the border to get it. Export began simply because the demand had become so great. However, in 2018, its makers decided to stop exporting it to the United States, citing a lack of demand, according to a San Diego Tribune article published at the time.
Over the 20th century, Mexico’s commercial breweries consolidated into two or three conglomerates, of which Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma was one. It produces well-known brands such as Dos Equis, Superior, Indio, Tecate and Bohemia. The company considers Noche Buena as part of the Bohemia line.
Ironically, in 2010, the Dutch company Heineken bought out FEMSA’s control of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, putting most of Mexico’s beer brewing, including Noche Buena, back into European hands. However, it is highly unlikely that this will mean any notable changes in how Noche Buena is made. It is too far an ingrained Christmas tradition for Mexicans to tolerate that.
It costs a bit more than most Mexican beers, but Noche Buena is not a beer simply to drink as alcohol. It is to drink with close family and friends as you celebrate Christmas and New Year’s. Whether or not you get drunk is secondary at best.
Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.