For more than 100 years, Melbourne has been host to one of the dairy industry’s biggest nights – the little known, though rigorously judged, Dairy Industry Association of Australia (DIAA) national product awards.

For the first time in three years, luminaries of the curds and whey scene – from artisan cheesemakers to CSIRO dairy technologists – were able to assemble at a gala event at Regent Theatre’s Plaza Ballroom to hear the results of the DIAA’s 2022 Awards of Excellence. It’s a competition that has been ranking the merits of the country’s dairy products, in one way or another, since 1895.

From supermarket standards to boutique options, local curdsmiths went head-to-head with vast dairy cooperatives as they all vied for the coveted trophies. The competition was judged during March by 21 dairy-industry experts at the DIAA’s headquarters at the CSIRO Food Innovation Centre in Werribee.

Janos Kaldy – the competition’s head judge, who has worked in the industry for close to 50 years and judged dairy contests internationally for more than 30 – says his fellow judges and have been cultivating their grading skills for decades. All judges are heavily vetted, selected based on their experience in the industry and their ability to catch out issues with texture and viscosity, as well as overpowering or underperforming flavour profiles. The panellists undergo stringent testing before each competition to assess the quality of their palates. Most are over 50 years of age (to ensure a sophisticated palate), and Kaldy says there is always a stable of fledgling judges being trained up to take over from those who retire at around 70, when palates, he says, begin to deteriorate. “When your palate isn’t performing, your number is up – it’s time to go,” he says. Suffice to say, you won’t find any celebrity chefs or food writers on the judging roster – this is a bone-fide technical assessment performed by the country’s most discerning and dedicated dairy savants.

Products may receive demerits for being oxidised, or unclean in taste, or for being excessively sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami. They might also lose points for being too crumbly, too pasty or too greasy. Importantly, there’s no blind testing. Kaldy says this is crucial for judges to assess what exactly they’re dealing with in terms of ingredients, as well as sugar and fat levels, so they can evaluate the products accordingly.

Each year the competition issues a handful of “platinum” awards to the best manufacturers in show, those whose entries have been awarded extra points for excellence. This year, offerings from Meredith Dairy, Barambah Organics and Berrys Creek Gourmet Cheese were all celebrated as “outstanding” in their fields.

Overall, the list of winners in the 111 product categories revealed some surprising (and budget friendly) results.

The full-cream option from Geelong Dairy’s Kyvalley site took out top honours in the best full-cream, non-homogenised milk category, with Aldi’s home-brand Farmdale Whole Milk (sourced from the Bega Dairy & Drinks plant) coming a close second. Both outshone Melbourne favourite St David Dairy, which made up ground by taking a gold for its reduced-fat milk.

Barambah Organics took the crown for the country’s best skim milk, plus a swathe of other awards including gold medals for its feta (unoiled), chocolate and iced coffee flavoured milk, and reduced-fat yoghurt.

The company also snared a silver for best full-cream, non-homogenised milk, while Bass River Dairies, East Coast Sustainable Dairy and two entrants from Norco drew equal first place.

Farmdale full-cream and Devondale skim were the most highly prized UHT (ultra heat treatment) options.

In the butter department, Aussie favourite Western Star took top honours for its cultured pack butter, and Dairy Farmers Salted Butter was the winner in the uncultured category.

When it came to cheese, supermarket stalwarts didn’t disappoint with Bega declared the country’s “champion cheesemaker” as well as taking out gold in no less than three cheddar categories for its Strong & Bitey, Tasty and Cheddar varieties.

That’s Amore’s burrata, (soon to be available at the much-anticipated Mercato Centrale in Melbourne) was voted the nation’s best soft pasta-filata (stretched curd) cheese. The company also received gold in the ricotta category, along with fellow independent cheesemakers Alba, Montefiore and Floridia.

Go-to packet parmesan, Mil Lel scored highest in the “very hard cheese” division and aced the field of shredded cheese competitors.

King Island Dairy’s reliable Black Label Double Brie was nudged out of prime position by Yarra Valley Dairy’s Hubert’s in the smear-ripened, washed or mixed rind category. Not to be outdone, King Island did manage to snatch victory with its Roaring Forties Blue in the blue cheese with mould competition.

Beyond the bovine, Meredith Dairy demolished its rivals in the goat’s cheese contest, taking out a total of six gold medals in the category, as well as first place for its sheep’s milk yoghurt.