A Lilliputian edible beer can filled with chocolate. A bouillon cube made from dried kimchi flavor that turns a cup of water into a funky broth. A lavender infused polygon that turns a cup of warm milk into the perfect, slightly sweetened black tea. If these sound like goodies straight from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, you’re not far – they’re all made with 3D printers (and quite a bit of human labor) in the kitchen at Sugar Laboratory 3D, the world’s first company dedicated to printing edible items.
Sugar Lab 3D, based in downtown Los Angeles, 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 led by Hasseln, starting with the invention of a 3D printer using granulated sugar as the printing material, which he developed with his wife Liz in 2011. Brill, a large printer manufacturer, quickly acquired this technology and then helped from Hasseln, Bozeman and Hu along with a significant team of engineers in developing the very first certified food-safe 3D printer, which can use all kinds of dehydrated powdered foods and opens the door to huge possibilities.
Like so many companies launched in the past 18 months, Sugar Lab 3D met a need created by the effects of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, von Hasseln and his team worked directly with chefs to create 3D printed components for dishes in high-end restaurants across the country. When restaurants and catering businesses closed in the spring and summer of 2020, von Hasseln turned and renamed his company a retail store that sold edible items directly to consumers, so local foodies could turn morning coffee into an Instagram-ready event.
To the educated eye, much of what Sugar Lab does seems to be inspired by the deconstructed desserts that have shaped the world of molecular gastronomy for several decades. Some of the company’s products trigger alchemical reactions – the lavender-colored polygon that, for example, turns warm milk into tea, also offers an aesthetic experience that feels wonderfully futuristic in a kind of Buckminster-Fuller-meets-the-Jetsons. Other products, including the recently launched apple-coated caramel, turn expectations on their head by reversing the typical relationship between the components of a familiar food and satisfying the desire for nostalgia and novelty with a single bite.
For von Hasseln the now obvious connection to molecular gastronomy came as a surprise. He had studied rapid prototyping at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where he had met Hu and other future Sugar Lab employees, and when he first came up with the idea of using 3D printers to make foodstuffs of architectural models, he knew very little about possible uses in haute cuisine. “We didn’t know if [the idea] would work. We thought the chefs might think it was too high tech. . . or too much food science and too little traditional manufacturing; that it would seem like a trick, ”he told ARTnews. “But I was totally wrong.” Chefs – especially pastry chefs who have already tested the limits of sugar and chocolate – were fascinated by it, enthusiastic from the start by the prospect of complex shapes that are not possible with standard shapes.
As with traditional, labor-intensive confectionery, Sugar Lab’s products take a lot more than send a design to a 3D printer and come back hours later to find a pack-ready treat. The Sugar Lab kitchen, run by Chef Victoria Johnson, is equal to an industrial kitchen and a tech lab. There are four powder bed printers in the kitchen, each of which can print several hundred small objects in about a nine-hour printing session. Before the printers start working, Johnson sends them files created by lead designer James Choe and loads a mother recipe of water, sugar, and maltodextrin combined with just enough powdered food to achieve the desired taste. Once the objects are printed, they need to be stripped of excess powder (for a flawless look), dehydrated, hand-filled (if they’re supposed to have a chocolate, caramel, or cream center), and packaged for sale. Sugar Lab is exploring how more of this tedious post-processing could be automated, but for now, heavy assistance from human hands is the only way to move these objects from the printer bed to the dining table.
Sugar Lab’s seemingly endless research and development also requires extensive human labor, from creating new products to designing and testing them. When ARTnews Visited the Sugar Lab offices earlier this year, they had just released the first of their sets, which aimed to capture the flavors of an iconic Los Angeles neighborhood in edible 3D-printed form. The Koreatown Collection, published in collaboration with an art organization GYOPO, hits a multitude of distinctive notes, from the tangy-sweet hit of a yakult bomb to the deeply satisfying umami of kimchi broth that can be used to flavor a pot of budae-jjigae, or Army base stew, a mashup of American and Korean ingredients after the Korean War. The collection also includes painfully sweet miniature fruits for brushing bingsu, elaborate shaved ice-cream desserts that are often garnished with red beans and sweetened condensed milk. Like many of Sugar Lab’s creations, the Koreatown set, which took nine months of research and development to develop, contrasts nostalgia and invention, reminding us that even in our high-tech world, tradition can serve as a starting point for creativity.