The battle to find New Zealand’s best cheese is set to be fierce with over 400 entries, three new cheese companies, a new cheese type, new international judges and the exciting addition of yoghurt and butter categories.

Now in its twelfth year, The New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards bring the country’s finest specialty cheese under one roof, in the hope of winning one of 23 champion titles.

This year is a stand out in award history with the new addition of yoghurt and butter categories, acknowledging the importance of these dairy products alongside cheese in retail chillers.

The future of New Zealand cheese making will also be recognised with the first Primary ITO ‘Aspiring Cheesemaker’ Award.

New Zealand’s largest cheese exporters, small artisan cheesemakers, home crafted cheeses and yoghurt and butter producers, will be judged by an expert panel at The Langham in Auckland on Sunday 15th March.

“The stage is set for an incredible competition with new players, new classes and new awards. It’s also exciting to be able to showcase our amazing cheese industry with some of the world’s most influential cheese critics,” organiser of the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards, Tony Goode, said.

A strong international judging team will be lead by Russell Smith, one of Australasia’s most experienced international cheese judges and renowned cheese educationalist.

Thalassa (Lassa) Skinner, founder and co-owner of an American magazine dedicated entirely to cheese –Culture, will join Smith this year, bringing a wealth of cheese knowledge on an international scale.

“It’s an honour to judge the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards alongside others I hold in high regard,” Skinner said.

Culture is keeping a close eye on New Zealand’s cheese scene, knowing there’s a burgeoning cheese industry here along with strong specialty food appreciation throughout the country. We’re eager to share this with food lovers globally.”

Master Judge Russell Smith will lead a total of 31 expert assessors, including some of New Zealand’s most experienced dairy connoisseurs. Together they’ll consume and critique up to 450 cheeses, butters and yoghurts in search of the nation’s best.

Each will be examined by a technical and an aesthetic judge as a duo, and strictly graded to pre-determined gold, silver and bronze standards.

Judges will also determine Champions across 23 categories before selecting the two best overall cheeses to be named supreme winner of the Puhoi Valley Champion Artisan Award for small artisan producers, and the Countdown Champion of Champions Award for larger producers.

The strength of the home crafted category continues to build this year with strong entry levels.

“A sign of how home cheesemaking is advancing is the progression of previous award winners to become fully fledged professionals, like Cartwheel Creamery,” Goode said.

“Cheesemakers in this category generally start with more simple fresh cheeses, but what we’re seeing this year is the entry of aged varieties with more complex flavours that undoubtedly require more skill.”

A good example of this is a seasonal cheese with limited availability set to make its debut in this year’s awards, made from buffalo, goat, cow and sheep milk. This creation from Over The Moon Dairy is called ‘Southern Cross by Neil Willman’ and holds a strong Kiwi identity.

Kiwi cheese lovers can also have their say with the New World Champion Favourite Cheese Award selected entirely by public votes through the New World website.

The 2015 NZ Champions of Cheese Award winners will be announced at a gala dinner at The Langham in Auckland on Tuesday 17th March.

The following day (Wednesday 18th March) the public are invited to sample award-winning cheeses from all over New Zealand and meet the cheesemakers who produce them. MiNDFOOD CheeseFest, billed as at the ultimate event for cheese lovers, takes place at The Langham from 5pm to 8:30pm. Tickets are available for $30 per person at www.eventfinder.co.nz or $35 at the door.

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