Finding the Right Blend

For nearly six decades after Fred Waring perfected the Miracle Mixer, the world's first commercial kitchen blender, the kitchen appliance went relatively unchanged. Blenders stayed white, the number of buttons was the main variable, and they were powered by small electric motors -- cheap, poorly made small appliances that tended to burn out after a few years of heavy use.

But over the last few years, the blender has mutated into a sexy, must-have category killer as America's nesting instinct has taken hold. Demure white and eggshell exteriors have been replaced by vibrant reds and metallic finishes, while feeble motors have been swapped out for commercial-grade engines capable of revving to 30,000 rotations per minute.

Finally, the blender has come of age.

Consumers are responding to the change. In 2003, the blender was the fastest-growing kitchen appliance segment, racking up $479.21 million in sales, up 12.5% from the previous year, according to HFN, an industry trade publication. That's more than twice as large as the next fastest-growing segment, coffee makers, which grew 5.3%.

Retailers like Target, Wal-Mart and Kohl's are rushing to capitalize on the trend, expanding their blender offerings.

As shelves fill up with the latest and greatest, we decided to take a look at the most interesting and unusual blenders on the market -- especially with a nice chunk of the summer slurping season that lies ahead.

A Pitcher of Beauty

By and large, pitcher design has been woefully neglected by blender makers more concerned with whether the "mix" button should come before or after "puree."

But Jenn-Air has taken a "pitcher first" mentality with its Attrezzi line of countertop kitchen appliances, inverting the "wide-top, narrow-bottom" construction seen in most blenders and crafting a bulbous, pear-shaped, objet d'art that holds 72 liquid ounces and looks, well, just like a pitcher. Even better: Jenn-Air's Attrezzi blenders, which cost $210, come in a multitude of designs that will please aesthetes and gourmands alike.

Pitcher Perfect
Jenn-Air's Attrezzi line emphasizes design and costs $210.

The performance of Jenn-Air's Attrezzi line is what you would expect from an upscale kitchen equipment maker, with five-speed electronic controls that are backlit by a blue LED display and a 400-watt high-efficiency motor -- but customization is the key selling point. The blender base can be finished in five styles, ranging from pearl white to antique copper. And the pitchers are designed to look like works of art, coming in a veritable rainbow of colors, including cobalt blue, merlot red, aqua beach, amber tortoise, dolce and verde green.

In fact, the Jenn-Air blender doesn't just look like a work of art -- some of them are works of art.

Starting this month, Jenn-Air began selling 500 limited-edition models from celebrated glass artist Michael Weems, whose work has been given as gifts to visiting foreign dignitaries by the U.S. government. The Weems blenders retail for $300 with the proceeds going to Share Our Strength, a charity helping the hungry, and have a rich, unique gold-and-copper motif that looks like something from a Godiva chocolate shop -- blenders never had it this good.

Give 'Em the Gas!

Electric blenders are all well and good, but when there's no place to plug in, hard-core daiquiri devotees turn to gas-powered solutions.

A few small companies make blenders that are powered by undersized, gas-fueled engines, making them light enough to be brought out for an afternoon of tailgating, a weekend camping trip or a day on the boat. While pricey, these products pack a punch, using weed whacker-sized motors to whip up bulk-sized batches of blender drinks.

Totally Gross (go figure) makes the TailGator, one of the most popular gas-powered blenders, weighing in at 10 pounds and using a 24cc, 2.25 horsepower, two-stroke engine -- it's no surprise that the TailGator made its breakthrough cameo appearance on Home Improvement. The company claims the variable-speed blender can grind a 60-ounce pitcher of ice into snow in 11 seconds. The pitcher, however, is made from plastic, which is less durable than glass and doesn't keep drinks as cold as steel. Also, the blenders are a bit loud.

"We were in the police blotter in Martha's Vineyard last fall," said Annika Hayes, the company's owner. "Someone called in about 10:20 on a Saturday night and said, 'You need to come, someone's chopping up bodies!" So a police car was dispatched and they saw some happy people walking along a roadside and as they came closer, they saw more revelers and pulled up to a big party. There were no bodies. People were just running their TailGators."

Power Play
Totally Gross' Tailgator is an ice-crushing marvel and costs $300.

Ultimately, with a price tag of $300, the TailGator's real claim to fame is the novelty of owning one -- the company only sold between 1,500 and 2,000 units in 2003, mostly through select specialty outlets and the company's Web site, www.tailgatorzone.com. If the hefty price tag doesn't scare you off, for another $70 the company will throw in a carrying case -- which is probably worth the money, if only to avoid losing a key part on a camping trip.

The Race Car Blender

Outside of the occasional NASCAR-themed beer mug, sports cars do not provide much inspiration for kitchen products. But L'Equip's Model 228 R.P.M. power blender is a little different, able to make a mean milkshake as well as grind coffee beans, thanks to its extra-powerful 900-watt motor.

Indeed, the Model 228 is a variable-speed blender, able to reach between 500 and 20,000 rotations per minute, slow and strong enough to crush ice cubes and speedy enough to whip egg whites into foam. In fact, the Model 228 is so fast, the company has put a tachometer -- the kind that shows R.P.M.'s in race cars -- right into the base so smoothie fans can see exactly how fast "liquefy" really is.

"When we took this to the trade shows, one of the questions we always got was 'How many seconds to crush ice?' and I had no idea," said Cheryl Slavinsky, vice president of public relations for L'Equip. "So at the show, we took a pitcher of ice, with no water, and found out. In three to four seconds it turned the whole pitcher into snow-cone material. It'll chop nuts and seeds, too. It's pretty powerful."

Unlike cheapie $20 blenders, which use smaller motors, dull metal blades and plastic parts to blend, L'Equip's model is built to last and comes with a six-year warranty. The entire unit and the blade is crafted from stainless steel, using the same materials found in the company's commercial juicers, while the 56-ounce heavy-duty polycarbonate pitcher comes with a zero-leakage rubber lid.

Fast Work
L'Equips model 228 has a tachometer and costs up to $149.

The Model 228 costs between $129 and $149, not including shipping. That is, if you can find one -- the blender has only been on the market since the beginning of the year. While L'Equip is big with restaurant suppliers, the kitchen equipment maker is only now moving into consumer blenders, so their gear is often found at specialty-supply stores instead of the local Wal-Mart. Interested parties should check out the company's Web site, www.lequip.com, which began accepting online orders at the end of June.

The Smoothie Operator

As midday workouts have replaced three-martini lunches, blenders have moved beyond booze and into the world of smoothies, healthy ice-and-fruit concoctions that are now a staple of juice bars everywhere.

But making smoothies in a standard blender isn't as easy as it seems. The combination of crushed ice and pulpy fruit can be tough for small-engine blenders to power through, creating a mess that's more gloppy than silky. And even if the smoothie is properly made, pouring it out can make a bigger mess, when the thick mixture suddenly shifts and overshoots the glass.

To capitalize on the rise in the popularity of smoothies, a number of manufacturers have begun selling specialized smoothie blenders to make the task even easier. While fruit and ice is still loaded in through the top, the unit comes with a special stirring stick to ensure the high-powered motor chews up all the ingredients.

"The stir stick comes within a quarter-inch of the blade as it spins and is removable," said Melissa Clyne, spokeswoman for Back to Basics. "This was one of those light bulb moments for the category. I have minced quite a few wooden spoons trying to mix in my blender. What they've done is taken that cap that sat on the top and made it a functional part of the machine."

And once the smoothie is fully processed, instead of pouring it out the old-fashioned way, leave the motor running, place a glass under the spigot at the bottom of the blender and flip a switch to pour.

Smoothie Operator
Back to Basics' Professional model holds 64 ounces and costs $100.

If you're in the market for a healthy, mess-free smoothie blender, Back to Basics' line has been popular ever since the company debuted its first model three years ago. In 2001, its first year on the market, the company sold 150,000 blenders and last year had a 14% share of the total blender market.

Today, the company has 19 models of smoothie makers in all shapes and sizes. They range from the $20 Smoothie Blast (only available at Kohl's -- which has a 350-watt pulse power motor and a 32-ounce pitcher -- to the $100 Professional Smoothie Maker, which has a 1,000-watt pulse power motor, a 64-ounce pitcher and comes in a sleek, contemporary brushed chrome design.

Yes, the blender has come of age, and this group has something to offer consumers of all ages and tastes.

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