Going Teetotal: A Guide to Japan’s Non-alcoholic Drinks
By Liam Carrigan
On April 8, 2015
As regular readers of my work will know, for the past few months I’ve been on a rather extreme diet and exercise regimen. I’ve now lost about 35% of my previous body weight, so I guess I must be doing something right. Anyway, one of the most difficult changes I had to make was the move away from alcohol.
Like many people in Japan, I wouldn’t say I had a problem with drinking, but having a cold beer at the end of a busy day is something of a national institution here, and even just one beer or two beers, 3 or 4 times a week, can have a huge impact on your health and your weight.
Thankfully, Japan is becoming increasingly aware of the need to provide appropriate substitutes for people like me who enjoy a pint, but can do without the alcohol therein. Non-alcoholic beers and other such drinks, are a growing industry here.
The question is, how do they taste?
I can honestly say that in my previous dalliances with abstinence, I have sampled some truly horrific liquids masquerading as beer substitutes. Anyone from Europe who has ever tried non-alcoholic Becks will know exactly what I’m talking about. Thankfully it seems the Japanese have advanced beyond this and there are some pretty good beers and other similar alcohol free drinks available at your local convenience store.
So here is my top 5 alcohol free beverages to enjoy after a hard day at the office.
5) Kirin All Free
This bottled beer does, admittedly, taste nothing like the famous “Kirin Ichiban” it seeks to imitate. Nevertheless it has a nice flavour to it and it is light and easy to drink. If you enjoy going to bars with your friends, you will find that many of the more popular ex-pat haunts like British bar chain “Hub” sell Kirin All Free on their regular menu. At 400 yen a bottle it certainly isn’t cheap, but compared to Hub’s alcoholic alternatives, the price isn’t unreasonable. In convenience stores, a 330 ml can will set you back around 180 yen.
4) Kirin Zero-Hi
If you aren’t much of a beer drinker and prefer something a bit lighter and sweeter, then these new drinks from Kirin provide an excellent substitute. They are available in either lemon or grapefruit flavour. I personally prefer the grapefruit as it has more of a “kick” reminiscent of the now absent shochu used in conventional chuhai drinks. In addition to having no alcohol, it also has zero sugar and zero calories. Prices range from 140 to 200 yen per 330ml can, depending on where you shop.Photo by Mikael Leppä
3) Choya Alcohol Free Umeshu
There are few drinks in the world I enjoy more than the sweet, rich, plum liqueur know as Umeshu. However in addition to an alcohol content of between 15-20%, Umeshu is also very high in sugar. Thankfully this new drink offers all of the taste with none of the damaging side-effects. It is one of the few alcohol-substitute drinks our there that genuinely tastes almost identical to the original.
2) Asahi Dry Zero
This alcohol free clone of the popular Asahi Super Dry Beer is now my tipple of choice. Freely available in most convenience stores and coming in at only 200 yen for a 540 ml can, it is also great value for money. I’ll certainly make my way through a few of these come hanami season.
1) Asahi Black Zero
Back in Scotland, and also when I lived in Hong Kong, one of my favourite drinks on a hot day was a nice cold pint of Guinness. Unfortunately, over-priced Irish theme pubs aside, getting hold of a good pint of the “Liffey Water” is far from easy in Japan. Asahi go some way towards filling the gap with their Asahi Black Beer. Thankfully, in the last few weeks, this beer has also made its way into selected convenience stores in a non-alcoholic form, meaning I can once again savour the rich flavour and creamy texture. I will go so far as to say that I cannot taste the difference between this new drink and regular black beer.
Drinking may be a large part of the working culture here in Japan. Indeed just as I write this I have received two emails from colleagues inviting me to end of year “nomikais” (drinking parties). However, one can still enjoy these parties without having to endure the inevitable hangover the next day. Why not give it try? You may be surprised by the results.