A Lilliputian edible beer can filled with chocolate. A bouillon cube made of dried kimchi flavoring that transforms a cup of water into funky broth. A lavender-infused polygon that turns a mug of warm milk into the perfect lightly sweetened black tea. If these sound like treats straight from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, you’re not far off—they’re all made with 3D printers (and quite a lot of human labor) in the kitchen of Sugar Lab 3D, the world’s first company dedicated to printing edible objects.
Based in downtown Los Angeles, Sugar Lab 3D is the brainchild of Kyle von Hasseln and Meagan Bozeman, who founded the company in 2020 in collaboration with 3D food designer William Hu. Sugar Lab is just the latest in a series of projects spearheaded by von Hasseln, beginning with the invention of a 3D printer that uses granulated sugar as a printing material, which he created with his wife, Liz, in 2011. Brill, a major printer manufacturer, quickly acquired that technology, then supported von Hasseln, Bozeman, and Hu, along with a significant engineering team, in developing the first-ever certified food-safe 3D printer, which can use all kinds of dehydrated, powdered food, opening the door to vast possibilities.
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Like so many companies founded over the past 18 months, Sugar Lab 3D answered a need generated by the impacts of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, von Hasseln and his team worked directly with chefs to create 3D-printed components for dishes at high-end restaurants across the country. When restaurants and catering businesses shuttered in the spring and summer of 2020, von Hasseln pivoted, rebranding his enterprise as a retail business selling edible objects direct-to-consumer, allowing homebound foodies to turn morning coffee into an Instagrammable event.
To the educated eye, much of what Sugar Lab does appears to be inspired by the deconstructed desserts that have defined the rarefied world of molecular gastronomy for several decades. Some of the company’s products generate alchemical reactions—the lavender polygon that turns warm milk into tea, for example, also offers an aesthetic experience that feels wonderfully futuristic in a Buckminster-Fuller-meets-the-Jetsons kind of way. Other products, including the recently released apple-covered caramel, upend expectations by inverting the typical relationship between components in a familiar food, satisfying the desire for nostalgia and novelty in a single bite.
For von Hasseln, the now-obvious connections to molecular gastronomy came as a surprise. He had studied rapid prototyping at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where he met Hu and other future staff of Sugar Lab, and when he first alighted on the idea to use 3D printers to make foodstuffs rather than architectural models, he knew very little about potential applications in haute cuisine. “We didn’t know if [the idea] would work. We thought that chefs might think it was too high tech . . . or too much food science and not enough of a traditional way of making; that it would seem like a trick,” he told ARTnews. “But I was totally wrong.” Chefs—particularly pastry chefs already testing the limits of sugar and chocolate—were intrigued by it, excited from the start by the prospect of complex shapes impossible to create with standard molds.
As with traditional, labor-intensive confections, Sugar Lab’s products require much more than sending a design to a 3D printer and returning hours later to find a ready-to-package treat. Helmed by chef Victoria Johnson, the Sugar Lab kitchen is equal parts commercial kitchen and tech lab. The kitchen features four powder-bed printers, each of which can churn out several hundred small objects in a printing session that lasts about nine hours. Before the printers begin their work, Johnson sends them files created by lead designer James Choe and loads up a mother recipe of water, sugar, and maltodextrin combined with just enough powdered food to achieve the desired flavor. Once the objects are printed, they have to be cleaned of excess powder (for a pristine look), dehydrated, filled by hand (if they’re meant to have a chocolate, caramel, or cream center), and boxed for sale. Sugar Lab is exploring how more of this tedious post-processing could be automated, but for now, a heavy assist from human hands is the only way these objects can move from the printer bed to the dining table.
Sugar Lab’s seemingly endless R&D also requires extensive human labor, from conceptualizing new products to designing and taste-testing them. When ARTnews visited Sugar Lab’s offices earlier this year, they had just released the first of their sets aiming to capture the flavors of an iconic Los Angeles neighborhood in edible 3D-printed form. The Koreatown Collection, released in partnership with arts organization GYOPO, hits a variety of distinctive notes, from the tangy-sweet hit of a Yakult bomb to the deeply satisfying umami of kimchi bouillon, which can be used to flavor a pot of Budae-jjigae, or Army Base Stew, a post–Korean War mashup of American and Korean ingredients. The collection also includes painfully cute miniature fruits for topping Bingsu, elaborate shaved ice desserts often garnished with red beans and sweetened condensed milk. Like many of Sugar Lab’s creations, the Koreatown set—which took nine months of R&D to create—contrasts nostalgia with invention, reminding us that even in our highly tech-mediated world, tradition can serve as a starting point for creativity.