Below is some information about some of the different types of alcohol commonly found in Japan: beer, wine, sake, shōchū and awamori. Please note that some ‘beauty’ drinks, usually found in izakayas, contain collagen and are therefore not vegan. Look for コラーゲン (korāgen). You may also want to keep an eye open for cocktails containing honey (hachimitsu), written as はちみつ, 蜂蜜, or ハチミツ.
Barnivore is an excellent English-language website about whether alcohol is vegan that is sadly underutilized in Japan. They even have a prewritten email template in Japanese (and many other languages) to mail to companies to find out whether their products are vegan. You can use it just by filling in the brand name, your name, and then sending it off to the company. If you write to any companies in Japan to find out if their alcohols are vegan, please consider using Barnivore’s template and contributing the information to Barnivore.
For those who do not live in Japan, products sold on Rakuten Ichiba can be shipped to other countries via Rakuten Global Express (English), Rakuten’s official overseas delivery service (click here for Rakuten Global Express in Japanese). They will combine your Rakuten Ichiba (Japanese) order with orders from other shopping websites, including those that do not ship overseas, and send everything to you. They do not send refrigerated or frozen items- if you order them, they will be sent to you unrefrigerated. Sign-up is free. Learn how to use the service here (English). Those in Japan can purchase any product that is carried on Rakuten Ichiba directly, of course without using Rakuten Global Express, which is only for overseas shoppers. Note that Rakuten Global Express cannot ship beverages with an alcohol content of more than 25%.
As well as regular beer, there is also ‘happoshu’ (low malt ‘beer’ or sometimes, a beer containing ingredients not specified by the national government ordinance, even if it’s not low-malt) and ‘new genre/third beer’ (product types made of ingredients other than wheat and malt or by adding alcoholic beverages like spirits to low-malt beer) in Japan. You can find details about the difference between “beer,” “happoshu” and “new genre” in Kirin’s FAQ section and more information in English from the Simply Oishii website.
Until 2018, beer in Japan could only be made with things like hops, water, and other things like rice and corn. Beverages containing other ingredients could not be called beer. However, in 2018, the laws were changed so that beer can contain up to 5% of the weight of the malt of the drink of other ingredients such as fruit, spices, salt, herbs, miso, or bonito (fish), known as katsuobushi in Japanese. The Mainichi newspaper has a detailed article on the change, News Navigator: How will the definition of beer change under revised legislation? (English)
Per an article (English) in LiveKindly in November 2018, Kirin Holdings Co., Ltd., the second-largest alcoholic-beverage manufacturer in Japan, has agreed to join Asahi Group Holdings, Ltd., Suntory Holdings, Ltd., and Sapporo Holdings Ltd. to stop animal testing that is not required by law.
Craft beer is also a growing category. Like in other countries, stouts in Japan may contain lactose, a milk sugar. Many craft beer companies in Japan make stouts at least occasionally.
Now let’s move on to looking at some specific brands of beer.
Asahi was contacted by the Vegana No Japao blog (now defunct) in May 2019. They replied that although they list the raw materials on the label, they are not claiming that any of their products are vegan-friendly. They apologized but stated that they would not give information on the manufacturing process.
In an email in 2020 responding to a separate customer inquiry, Asahi gave virtually an identical response. They stated to check the label of the can, etc. to see the raw materials that are included in the product. They stated they do not sell any products as vegan. They apologized but stated that they do not provide information on the manufacturing process.
Coedo (English) is an award-winning craft beer brewery in Saitama, Japan. It was founded by a family that was doing organic farming in the region and moved into producing beer from sweet potatoes that until then, were thrown away due to being considered too ugly for market. The Barnivore listing (English) for Coedo states (info from December 2020): “There are not any animal ingredients in our beer and we have had same system suitable for vegan,” however, “Coedo has a beer out called “Ichiyo Raifuku-2021″ which is a milk stout and contains lactose, 乳糖 , per their website” (info from February 2021).
According to their website, they do supply the spent grain used in production to feed cattle near their brewery.
Photo from website.
Kirin was contacted by the Vegana No Japao blog (now defunct) in May 2019. They replied that they do not use animal materials to make their Ichiban Shibori/一番搾り beer in Japan and that the raw materials are malt and hops. They do not use isinglass or gelatin in the manufacturing process. However, it is licensed to be made overseas, and they cannot state that that no animal-derived materials are used in the manufacturing process of overseas factories.
In an email in 2020 responding to a separate customer inquiry, Kirin gave a fairly similar answer. They stated that they do not use isinglass and gelatin in the manufacturing process for beers. They stated that while the use of animal products varies from product to product, Ichiban Shibori/一番搾り生ビール, Tanrei Gokujō/淡麗極上<生> and Nodogoshi/のどごし<生> do not use animal ingredients.
They also mentioned that products produced outside of Japan cannot be said to not use any animal-derived products in the manufacturing process. In addition, they say they are not guaranteeing the final products not to have any animal ingredients, even if the products manufactured in Japan do not use animal raw materials. This statement seemed contradictory, but perhaps this refers to the potential of cross-contamination, or perhaps they are just are not able to certify all of their ingredients as being not of animal origin. They close by stating that they do not have any products that can be introduced as vegan products.
Online purchase link: Rakuten Ichiba
Photos from Kirin’s website. The four products mentioned are pictured below.
Kiuchi Brewery (English) An eighth-generation sake brewery, begun in 1823. They manufacture Hitachino Nest Beer (English). Their mission is to brew beer without simply imitating Western brewing techniques. Per their Barnivore listing (English): “Our beer is vegan friendly as we use Seaweed derived findings instead of fish. The only beer contains non-vegan ingredients is Sweet Stout which we use Lactose sugar.” The information is from February 2018.
Online purchase link: Rakuten Ichiba
Photo from the Hitachino Nest website.
Kyoto Brewing Company stated that they don’t use any animal products such as isinglass to filter their beer. The only clarifying agent they use is called Koppakleer, which is derived from carrageenan, a seaweed. The information is from around 2014.
Online purchase link: Kyoto Brewing Company website (English)
Sapporo (English) was contacted by the Vegana No Japao blog (now defunct) in May 2019. They stated that none of the beer-taste products they manufacture domestically or license and manufacture overseas use animal ingredients, including non-alcoholic beer-taste beverages. No animal-derived fining agents such as isinglass are used. See their product page here.
In an email in 2020 responding to a separate customer inquiry, Sapporo replied that they do not use animal ingredients in the beer, happoshu, new genre, and non-alcoholic beer-taste beverages they manufacture. In addition, they do not use animal-derived fining agents like isinglass in the manufacturing process. They further added that they have a beer factory in Vietnam, but the same applies to the products manufactured there. They have confirmed that the same applies to their products licensed overseas.
Sapporo’s popular Black Label beer is pictured below.
Online purchase link: Rakuten Ichiba
Photo from website.
Sapporo Beer also manufactures the excellent Yebisu beer.
Photo from website.
Suntory was contacted by the Vegana No Japao blog (now defunct) in May 2019. They stated because there is no clear definition or certification system in Japan, they cannot state if their products are vegan-friendly. They also said that the beer they make using animal ingredients is called “All Free Collagen Rich/オールフリーコラーゲンリッチ” and it uses collagen derived from pigs. Their other products do not use animal ingredients in the manufacturing process.
In an email in 2020 responding to a separate customer inquiry, Suntory replied again that because there is no clear definition or certification system in Japan, they cannot state if their products are vegan-friendly. They further stated that some product(s) use animal ingredients, and in addition, some wine manufacturing processes may use animal ingredients. This appears to possibly conflict with the information collected previously by Vegana No Japao, but perhaps in that case, the Suntory employee was referring only to their beer products and not to all the alcohol products they make. They closed by stating that they currently haven’t licensed production outside of Japan.
Yoho Brewing (English) is a popular craft beer maker, based in Karuizawa, Japan. Per their Barnivore listing (English): “We don’t use animal ingredients for our beer. However, we once used lactose when we brewed limited beer ‘SORRY SAKURA MOCHI STOUT.’ Also we use isinglass only for real ale. “And we fill beer only in Japan. For Aooni, we don’t use any animal ingredients.” The information is from June 2020.
However, on Yoho Brewing’s website, it’s clear that Sorry Umami IPA is not vegan, as the can and item listing both clearly state it is made with bonito (fish) flakes.
It appears that Real Ale using isinglass is a series of beers sold on tap at Yona Yona’s bar(s). There are photos here of the Real Ale taps.
The Aooni IPA , Yona Yona Ale, Suiyobi no Neko (Wednesday Cat), and Tokyo Black Porter beers are pictured below, as well as the non-vegan Sorry Umami IPA.
Pihotos from Yoho Brewing’s website.
As most vegans are aware, some wines are not vegan as animal products (such as egg whites, gelatin and isinglass) are used in the manufacturing process. We contacted the following Japanese wineries in March 2014 to ask whether their wines are vegan:
– Chateau Mercian
– Grace Wine
– Hakodate Winery
– Haramo Wine
– Katsunuma Winery Co
– Kurambon Wine
– L’Orient Wine
– Lumiere Wine
– Manns Wines (Kikkoman)
– Rubaiyat wine
– Soryu wine
– Tomi No Oka Winery
– Yamato Wine
Unfortunately we only received a response from Kikkoman, informing us that they are unable to provide any information about whether Manns Wines are vegan.
In 2020 Suntory stated that some of their wine manufacturing processes may use animal ingredients.
So if you’re looking for wine, it may be better to search Barnivore for information on imported wine.
The bulk of imported wines in stores still don’t have a vegan label, but you may spot the occasional imported wine with a vegan label from the country of origin. A few examples of this type of product are provided below.
To celebrate World Vegan Day 2020 (Nov. 1 2020), Sapporo Breweries released a number of imported vegan wines such as Labouré-Roi Beaujolais Nouveau 2020 and Parra Jiménez.
Also, according to Wine no Kanpe, popular lineups from brands like Yellowtail from Australia and the French wine Domaine Tariquet (both sold by Sapporo in Japan) will be switched to be vegan-compatible (starting from Nov 2020). Domaine Tariquet Classic, Domaine Tariquet Rose, and Domaine Tariquet Sauvignon have already been changed to be vegan-compatible, and Domaine Tariquet Chardonnay is scheduled to be changed to be vegan-compatible in the future. Some types of Yellowtail are scheduled to be changed to vegan-compatible starting from November 2020. Yellowtail is marked by the in-house certification mark of the importer, Casera Wines, and Tariquet is marked by the certification mark of EVE Vegan, a French vegan certification body, so look for the vegan marks on the labels (sample images shown at Wine no Kanpe).
Online purchase link: Rakuten Ichiba for Domaine Tariquet wines
Here’s another example of a certified vegan wine, spotted at Costco in January 2021, called Sensi Vegante Chianti Superiore.
In addition, you can try ordering online. The online shop Heavenly Vines (some English provided on website; English customer support available) sells a number of premium vegan-friendly (and organic/biodynamic) wines from boutique wineries in Canada in Japan. They come from small producers and many are not easily available outside of Canada. They can help you with your selection if you email them at: info at heavenlyvines.com. In July 2019, they confirmed that most of the wines they carry do not use any animal products in the winemaking process and that all wines they carry from the following wineries are vegan-friendly unless indicated:
Summerhill Pyramid Winery
Rosewood Estate Winery
Closson Chase Vineyards
Hidden Bench Estate Winery
Blue Mountain Vineyards (red wines only)
Norman Hardie Wines
Howling Bluff Winery
Laughing Stock Vineyards
Painted Rock Estate Winery
Clos du Soleil
Flat Rock Cellars
Stratus Vineyards (white wines only)
Like wine and beer, sake may or may not be vegan depending on the manufacturing process.
Traditionally, sake was only made from a few simple ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae – this mold is also used to make miso and soy sauce). Fungi and bacteria that are naturally present then complete the sake brewing process. The article Indigenous Bacteria and Fungi Drive Traditional Kimoto Sake Fermentations (English) gives a technical and detailed look at the process. It is called the kimoto method. This should not require using any animal products.
However, these days, to make the process faster and results more stable with less time and effort necessary, most breweries add commercially available lactic acid bacteria (lactobacillus) and cultivated yeast. This is called the sokujo-moto quick fermentation method. There is a brief and useful comparison of the methods available on the English website of the Kiku-Masamune Sake company, which is based in Kobe and has a more than 300-year-old history. It still uses the kimoto process.
According to a sake brewer in Japan, as most brewers now buy their lactobacillus from a producer, the brewer most likely won’t know what it was cultured on. The brewer stated it could be whey, molasses, or something else. If you want to be sure, you’ll need to contact each company and possibly their lactobacillus supplier individually and hope that they are willing to give out the information. Or it may be easier to look for kimoto sake.
As with some other types of alcohol, one additional issue is whether it is filtered or fined using animal products. Below is what John Gauntner (the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert) has to say on the issue of vegan sake:
““Q30. Vegetarian Sake. As a sake lover and a new vegan, I need to find sakes that do not use any animal product in their brewing and refining. Can you give me any information on how to double check a sake as “vegan-friendly?” Most sake does not use gelatin finings, although we cannot determine what does and what does not, and there is no way to know from the label. Powdered active charcoal is used for fining of most Japanese sake. This is made from (as far as we know) wood and plants, but we cannot be sure about all stuff at all places. Sake called “muroka” is unfiltered and unfined so that would be a safe bet.” – see the FAQ section of his website (English).
So in short, look for unfiltered and unfined muroka sake if you’d like to be quite sure animal products were not used to filter and refine the product.
The sake brewery Nanbu Bijin in Ninohe, Iwate, which exports to 38 countries and regions around the world, obtained the world’s first vegan sake certificate for all of their exports on January 25th, 2019 from VegeProject Japan. Read more about their products and awards at Business Wire (English).
Shōchū (and Awamori)
There are at least two major differences between sake and shōchū. First, sake is only made from rice, whereas shōchū can be made from a number of different ingredients, including rice, sweet potatoes, wheat, buckwheat, sugarcane and corn. Second, sake is fermented (like beer) whereas shōchū is distilled (like whisky, vodka, gin and other liquors).
Shōchū and soda (often fruit flavored) is sold in cans as ‘chūhai’ and as a ‘sour’ in restaurants/bars. Chūhai is a shortening of ‘shōchū highball’. Umeshu is a liquor made by steeping unripe plums and sugar in shōchū. Similarly, yuzushu and momoshu are made with yuzu fruit or peaches and either shōchū or sake.
Like other liquors, shōchū is likely to be vegan, although this will ultimately depend on the manufacturer (and whether the shōchū is flavored with animal products like honey). As with other products in Japan containing added sugar, the sugar may have been whitened using animal bone char. Unfortunately it is difficult to find information about whether particular brands of Japanese shōchū are vegan. There are a couple of shōchū manufacturers listed on Barnivore, but they are in America and Canada. We contacted Choya Umeshu Co Ltd around 2014 and asked whether their products are vegan, but we did not receive a reply.
According to Visit Okinawa Japan (English), Awamori, a locally produced Okinawan alcohol, is thought to be the predecessor of shōchū and is the oldest distilled alcoholic drink in Japan. It is made from Indica (Thai) rice.
Beware of habushu (ハブ酒)- this is awamori-based liqueur with a snake in the bottle. Sometimes the snake is removed before the product is sold. It’s made in Okinawa. The “Habuball” canned cocktail below is also made in Okinawa and was spotted at a Seijo Ishii supermarket in Tokyo. The second and third ingredients are “habu (pit viper snake) extract/ハブエキス” and “13 types of habu (pit viper snake)/ハブ13種類,” so it is not vegan.
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