Are any Japanese beers gluten-free?

Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people avoiding gluten for medical reasons or by choice. For those who follow a gluten-free diet, finding safe alcoholic beverages can be challenging. Beer in particular often contains gluten, as it is typically brewed using barley or wheat. However, there are some gluten-free beer options available, including certain Japanese beer brands. In this article, we will explore the topic of gluten in beer and discuss which, if any, Japanese beers are gluten-free.

What is Gluten and Why Do Some People Need to Avoid It?

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For most people, consuming gluten is not a problem. However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten can cause serious health issues.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It affects around 1% of the population worldwide. The only treatment for celiac disease is adhering to a strict lifelong gluten-free diet. Even small amounts of gluten can cause issues for those with celiac disease.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition where people experience digestive and other symptoms after ingesting gluten. It is estimated to affect around 6% of the population. The symptoms are similar to celiac disease but are typically less severe. While there is no treatment for NCGS, symptoms can be managed by removing gluten from the diet.

In addition to those with celiac disease and NCGS, some people choose to follow a gluten-free diet because they believe it is generally healthier. Whether or not this is true is still up for debate, but nevertheless, the demand for gluten-free products continues to grow.

Why is Gluten Used in Beer Brewing?

Traditionally, beer is brewed using malted barley or sometimes wheat. Both barley and wheat contain gluten. During the brewing process, the gluten proteins in these grains help provide structure and body to the beer. Gluten contributes to a beer’s foamy head and gives it a pleasant mouthfeel.

Most beer styles make use of barley malt, including popular varieties like lagers, pale ales, IPAs, and stouts. Wheat is used in beers like wheat beers and witbiers. The gluten content of these standard beer styles ranges from negligible amounts up to several thousand parts per million.

Gluten-free grains lack certain proteins that are needed for the brewing process. Removing gluten makes it more difficult for brewers to achieve the desired flavor, appearance, and mouthfeel that consumers expect in a beer. This has posed challenges for brewers wanting to create tasty gluten-free beers.

What Ingredients/Processes Are Required for Gluten-Free Beer?

In order for a beer to be considered gluten-free, it must be made without any gluten-containing grains, namely barley, wheat, and rye. There are a few key requirements for brewing gluten-free beer:

– Use gluten-free grains like sorghum, millet, buckwheat, rice, corn, or quinoa instead of barley malt. These grains do not contain the problematic gluten proteins.

– Ensure all other ingredients used are gluten-free. Things like adjuncts, flavorings, and enzymes must be verified not to contain gluten.

– Follow protocols to avoid cross-contamination. Gluten-free grains and ingredients should be stored and handled separately from gluten-containing items. Brewery equipment must be thoroughly cleaned.

– Limit gluten content to under 20 parts per million (ppm). Most experts advise this threshold for foods and drinks to be considered gluten-free.

– Use dedicated equipment and facilities. Some breweries produce both standard and gluten-free beers. Using equipment solely for gluten-free production avoids cross-contamination.

By meeting these key requirements, brewers can create authentic gluten-free beers that are safe for those with celiac disease or NCGS to drink.

Which Japanese Beer Brands are Gluten-Free?

The main gluten-free beer option originating from Japan is Happoshu. Happoshu translates to “low-malt beer” and is brewed using grains other than barley malt. Here are a few details on this Japanese gluten-free beer style:

– Happoshu was developed in the 1990s as a lower-tax alternative to standard beer. Since it uses minimal or no malt, it qualified for lower tax rates in Japan. This made it a popular budget-friendly beer option.

– Brewers use peas, corn, sorghum, and other gluten-free grains instead of barley to make Happoshu. It still results in a beer-like beverage.

– Major Japanese beer companies like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory all produce Happoshu beers. Popular Happoshu brands include Asahi Dry Zero, Sapporo Mugi to Hopp, Suntory Hon-shibori, and more.

– Most Happoshu contains less than 20 ppm of gluten since barley malt is not used. However, it’s important to check with each brand to confirm their gluten status.

In addition to Happoshu, a few specialty Japanese craft breweries are now producing gluten-free beers using sorghum, buckwheat, and rice. These niche gluten-free beer options are harder to find but provide more choices for gluten-free consumers in Japan.

Are Standard Japanese Beers Like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo Gluten-Free?

The short answer is no – typical Japanese beer brands like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are brewed using barley and therefore contain gluten. Here are the details:

– Popular Japanese beers are brewed with barley malt, the main gluten-containing ingredient. They resemble American adjunct lagers like Budweiser or Coors.

– While they may use some rice or corn as an adjunct, the barley malt provides the majority of the fermentable sugars and proteins. So these major brands are not gluten-free.

– Most standard Japanese lagers have a gluten content over 200 ppm, well above the under 20 ppm threshold to be considered gluten-free.

– Occasionally, a Japanese beer label might say it is “gluten-removed” or “low gluten.” However, experts warn that these products likely still contain problematic gluten levels for those with celiac disease or NCGS.

– Those with gluten issues should avoid beers like Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Ichiban, and Sapporo Premium. Instead, Japanese Happoshu beers are the safest gluten-free choice.

What About Japanese Craft Beers – Any Gluten-Free Options?

The craft beer scene has been growing steadily in Japan over the past decade or so. There are now hundreds of small independent breweries across Japan, focusing on creative beer styles. Within Japan’s expanding craft beer world, there are a handful of breweries creating gluten-free beers:

Brewery Gluten-Free Beer(s)
Brimmer Brewing Light Rice Lager
Harajuku Brewing Company Rice Lager
Minoh Beer Gluten Free Beer
Niiza Beer Brown Rice Lager, Green Rice Lager
Yona Yona Beer Works Pale Ale

While not as widely available as the major Happoshu brands, these craft beers provide additional gluten-free choices using ingredients like rice, buckwheat, and sorghum. Those adhering to a gluten-free diet should contact the breweries directly to confirm the gluten content of any Japanese craft beer.

What Are Some Tips for Ordering Gluten-Free Beer in Japan?

For those visiting Japan who need to avoid gluten, here are some useful tips for ordering gluten-free beer:

– Stick to Japanese-made Happoshu beer brands. Imported beers are unlikely to be gluten-free.

– Check menus and bottle labels for the words “gluten-free” or ask staff for gluten-free options.

– Learn to identify the Japanese Happoshu term so you can recognize these gluten-free beers.

– Use a translation app or card to communicate about dietary needs if there is a language barrier.

– Call ahead to restaurants to see if they have gluten-free beers available before visiting.

– Look for specialty beer bars that offer Japanese craft gluten-free beers on draft or in bottles.

– Be aware that contamination could occur from taps, lines, glasses etc. Use caution and ask questions.

– Carry a gluten-free beer with you as a backup if unsure of what options might be available.

With proper planning and research, those avoiding gluten can enjoy Japanese beer. Focus on the widely available Happoshu and be adventurous about trying Japan’s gluten-free craft beer scene.

Can Rice Lagers Like Budweiser or Coors Be Considered Gluten-Free?

Some people assume that rice lagers produced by major American breweries like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller are gluten-free. However, this is not the case. While these beers include rice as an adjunct, they still contain barley malt which provides gluten.

Here are a few key points on rice lagers:

– Beers marketed as “rice lagers” typically contain both rice and barley malt. Rice provides added flavor and crispness, while barley malt contributes protein and fermentable sugars.

– Since barley malt is still used in the brewing process, these rice lagers are not considered gluten-free.

– Most rice lager brands test above 20 ppm of gluten. For example, Budweiser has been measured between 30-180 ppm of gluten, well above the gluten-free threshold.

– Some brands may claim to remove or reduce gluten levels through special processes. But testing shows they still contain amounts of gluten that could be problematic for those with sensitivities.

– Sorghum is a gluten-free grain that can be used to brew lagers similar in taste and color to barley-based rice lagers. But the major brands do not currently use sorghum in their recipes.

So in summary, while they contain some rice, typical American rice lagers like Bud Light and Coors Banquet are not truly gluten-free. Those following gluten-free diets should steer clear of these popular beers.

Are Gluten-Removed Beers Safe for People with Celiac Disease?

A number of companies now produce “gluten-removed” beer, which are beers made from barley and then processed to reduce the gluten content. However, gluten-removed beers are still considered unsafe for people with celiac disease and other gluten issues.

Here’s an overview of why gluten-removed beers are not recommended:

– While the gluten content may be reduced, gluten removal processes are not able to bring levels low enough to be considered gluten-free. Most gluten-removed beers still have over 20 ppm of gluten.

– The exact gluten levels can vary from batch to batch depending on the effectiveness of the removal process. So there’s uncertainty about the amount of remaining gluten.

– For people with celiac disease, even tiny amounts of gluten can cause intestinal damage. These trace amounts may slip through in gluten-removed beers.

– Independent testing often shows significantly higher gluten levels in “gluten-removed” beers compared to what is advertised on the labels. So the true gluten content is questionable.

– Without formal regulation, there are no guarantees that gluten-removal claims are valid or consistently executed in these specialty products.

The bottom line is that there is too much risk and uncertainty around gluten-removed beers. To stay safe, people with celiac disease or NCGS should only choose beers expressly labeled as “gluten-free” with under 20 ppm of gluten.

Are Stouts and Porters Gluten-Free?

Stouts and porters are styles of beer that many people enjoy for their rich, complex flavors and often higher alcohol content. However, traditional stouts and porters are not gluten-free because they contain gluten from barley malt used in the brewing process.

Here are some details on the gluten status of stouts and porters:

– The standard recipes for stouts and porters rely on barley malt as the main ingredient. Barley malt provides the proteins and fermentable sugars needed to create these styles.

– Brands like Guinness Draught, Left Hand Milk Stout, and Samuel Smith Taddy Porter are examples of traditional barley-based stouts and porters. They contain moderate to high levels of gluten.

– There are a few specialty beers labeled “gluten-free stout” or “gluten-free porter” made from alternative grains like sorghum or buckwheat. But these are not common.

– Some breweries use oats in their stouts and porters, but oats do not provide the needed proteins for fermentation on their own. Gluten-containing barley is still necessary.

– The same cross-contamination risks apply to equipment, facilities, taps, and glasses at bars/restaurants that may impact very sensitive individuals.

While disappointing for fans of these darker beer styles, both regular stouts and porters with barley malts contain gluten and should be avoided by those following gluten-free diets. Seeking out certified gluten-free versions is the safest option.


For those avoiding gluten, Japanese Happoshu beers represent the most widely available gluten-free beer option in Japan. Major brands like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory all produce low-gluten to gluten-free Happoshu beers using ingredients like peas, corn, potato, and sorghum instead of barley malt. Traditional Japanese lagers, ales, stouts, and porters brewed with barley malt do contain gluten and are unsuitable for gluten-free diets. Within Japan’s expanding craft beer scene, a handful of breweries now offer specialty gluten-free beers as well. With proper research and care given to avoiding cross-contamination, gluten-free consumers can enjoy the many beer offerings of Japan. Outside of Japan, those with celiac disease or NCGS should exercise caution with beers marketed as “gluten-free” or “gluten-removed” and always verify gluten levels from the brewer. When dining out, be sure to inquire about options and procedures to have a safe gluten-free experience.

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