Interview: Charles Zeng of Charlie's Burger Enters the Business of Brew

By Chris Foste, September 2, 2019

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It has been eight years since Charles Zeng moved to Shanghai and four years since he opened his restaurant. Charlie’s Burger now has six shops throughout the city, and they recently added a session IPA to the offerings. We sent in our beer columnist Christopher Foste to sample it. Between burgers, fries and beer, he inquired about Zeng’s new business of brew.

You have one of the most famous burgers in Shanghai. Can you describe the recipe for our readers?
I decided to do burgers because I love them so much. I have to say that I imagined Chinese people would like them more than they do, so I’m slowly learning how to sell burgers to them. That’s why I use a Hokkaido bread that we bake in-house, which is a bit sweeter. We grind the meat freshly and have recently switched from mayonnaise to a secret burger sauce.

How do you feel about the international competitors that are entering the market?
The market here is huge, and it will be interesting to see who cracks the code at selling burgers to Chinese people. Whoever masters that recipe will do well.

Do you remember your first beer?
I was super young. You know Chinese people: your uncle feeds you a beer at the dinner table. I was six or seven years old, and it was terrible.

So, what made you decide to brew your first beer?
It was a lot of luck. There was this microbrewery, and they weren’t doing that well. They needed a large order, and they came to me to see if I wanted to make Charlie’s beer. Right away, I said, “let’s do it.” I came to appreciate craft beer late. When I got to Shanghai and opened Piro [his first pre-Charlie’s joint], there wasn’t much craft beer around. The first imported one I remember was Brewdog, and there was Boxing Cat, but that’s about it.

“It will be interesting to see who will crack the code at selling burgers to Chinese people.”

Since you are so into craft beer, what do you recommend pairing with your food?
I would go for a higher ABV beer for the flavor and the effect. The only thing I hate about beers is how fattening they are, so a higher alcohol volume allows me to drink less. One of my favorite beers is Delirium Tremens because it’s 8%, but tastes light and good. I also really like Kaiba’s passionfruit lager and of course our session IPA.

Image by Cristina Ng/That's

Spice goes well with these beers, and we recently added Sriracha mayo as an option for our burgers. You can also add jalapeños to any order. We have a new burger called the Fat Bastard, which is my personal favorite. It has peanut butter, pineapple and bacon, which is great with a beer.

How did you settle on a session IPA as your first beer?
We wanted to start with a Longjing Xihu craft beer made with tea from Hangzhou, but it didn’t work out. We have a lot of experimentation to do with that one, but I’m excited for it to come out later. We decided that this session IPA would be safer to make taste good and get out quickly. It’s super fresh and kept in cold storage the whole time because we don’t use preservatives or pasteurize.

Finally, I need your help settling an argument. What is the definition of a burger?
There’s a traditional definition and one that resonates with the Chinese. To me, a burger comes down to a patty and buns. It doesn’t matter if the buns are square or round, but if they are rectangular, you are entering sandwich territory. But if you call something a chicken sandwich, we have found out that Chinese people won’t buy it. So, we call it a chicken burger, and it sells.

Charlie's Burger, multiple locations (WeChat ID: charliesbts)

See listing for Charlie’s Burger & read more 'On the Grill' interviews here

[Cover image courtesy of Charlie’s Burger]

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