Cheese Definitions and Categories

Milk is defined in the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance as:

The normal lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy hooved mammals.

The Codex Alimentarius provides global standards for the definition of cheese:

Cheese is the ripened or unripened soft, semi-hard, hard, or extra-hard product, which may be coated, and in which the whey protein/casein ratio does not exceed that of milk, obtained by:

(a) coagulating wholly or partly the protein of milk, skimmed milk, partly skimmed milk, cream, whey cream or buttermilk, or any combination of these materials, through the action of rennet or other suitable coagulating agents, and by partially draining the whey resulting from the coagulation, while respecting the principle that cheese-making results in a concentration of milk protein (in particular, the casein portion), and that consequently, the protein content of the cheese will be distinctly higher than the protein level of the blend of the above milk materials from which the cheese was made; and/or

(b) processing techniques involving coagulation of the protein of milk and/or products obtained from milk which give an end-product with similar physical, chemical and organoleptic characteristics as the product defined under (a).

In the United States, cheese is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as:

the fresh or matured product obtained by draining after coagulation of milk, cream, skimmed, or partly skimmed milk, or a combination of some or all of these products, and including any cheese that conforms to the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration for cheeses and related cheese products (21 CFR part 133).

Describing, Categorizing and Classifying Cheese

There are multiple ways to describe, organize and classify cheese- including texture, milk type, and place of origin. Regardless of classification system, many varieties of cheese cross over from one category to another. For instance, a Gouda-style cheese can be sold to customers at many different ages, and therefore textures; can have a natural or waxed rind; and can be made from different milk types, and be produced in Europe and across the United States. Below we explore some of the commons ways that cheese is talked about, organized, and described.

Standards of Identity

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains and enforces Standards of Identity for Cheese for 72 cheese and cheese products. Each specific Standard of Identity can be found in Title 21, Part 133 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  Any cheese labeled with one of the cheese names identified must comply with the compositional and manufacturing requirements of that cheese.

Additional descriptive categorical standards (e.g., soft, semi-soft, and hard) are legally defined characterized by moisture and fat in dry matter. Federal standards for moisture and fat were established in the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetics Act (FFDCA) to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers- and were developed with the intention of setting a maximum moisture content to ensure that the consumer will receive a minimum amount of solids. The CFR lacks a semi-hard category causing an overlap between hard and semi-soft cheeses. US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which grades cheeses, and the FDA use the same standards of identity found within the CFR.

Milk Source and Production

The following terms are widely used to describe the way a cheese is produced:

The cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese.

The cheese must be primarily made by hand with milk from the farmer’s own herd, or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised. Milk used in the production of farmstead cheeses may not be obtained from any outside source. Care and attention must be paid to the purity, quality, and flavor of the milk. The cheese must be ripened naturally, with emphasis on development of characteristic flavor and texture and without the use of shortcuts and techniques to increase yield and shelf life at the expense of quality. Respect for the traditions and history of cheesemaking are expected regardless of the size of the production.

Specialty cheese is defined as a cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles.

Milk Treatment

Sometimes cheeses are defined by if they have been made from Unpasteurized or Pasteurized milk.

Unpasteurized, or raw, milk means that the milk has not been subjected to heat treatment before cheesemaking begins. The current regulations in the United States allow for the sale of cheeses made from unpasteurized milk if the cheese is aged for typically 60 days or more at a temperature greater than 35°F (2°C).

Pasteurization is a process named after French scientist Louis Pasteur that applies heat to destroy pathogens in foods. For the dairy industry, the terms “pasteurization,” “pasteurized” and similar terms mean the process of heating every particle of milk or milk product, in properly designed and operated equipment, to one of the approved temperatures outlined in the Grade A Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) and held continuously at or above that temperature for at least the corresponding specified time.

Pasteurization, High Temperature Short Time (HTST) – a legal pasteurization step which ensures that milk has been heated to a minimum of 161°F (71.6°C) for at least 15 seconds also known as continuous flow pasteurization.

Pasteurization, Low Temperature Long Time (LTLT) – a legal pasteurization step which ensures milk has been heated to 145°F (62.7°C) for a minimum of 30 minutes. Also known as Vat Pasteurization.

Milk that has been heated but not to the level or time required for pasteurization must still be called unpasteurized. There is no legal definition for heat-treated or thermized milk.

ACS Judging & Competition Categories 

The ACS Judging & Competition is a premier competition for cheeses produced in the Americas. The following categories are used to distinguish between many varieties of cheeses for judging, and they can be seen as a broad categorization of currently produced American cheeses.

Fresh Unripened Cheeses
These cheeses are not aged and have a high moisture range of 40-80%, which greatly reduces their shelf life. Federal law dictates that cheeses aged less than 60 days must be made from pasteurized milk/cream. In terms of taste, this category of cheese is often defined by characteristically mild, lactic flavors accompanied by a tangy finish.  Examples include: Fresh cheese curds, fresh chevre, Mascarpone, cream cheese, Ricotta, Quark, fromage blanc, cottage cheeses.

Soft- Ripened Cheeses
Cheeses in this category are characterized by the white bloomy mold development of Penicillium candidum. Although often accompanied by other fungus such as the yeast Geotrichum, the overall appearance of these cheeses is that they have a thin, white, flossy rind, encasing a soft or semi-soft interior paste that breaks down and becomes softer as the cheese matures.

With a moisture content of 50-75%, they are highly perishable and, depending on the temperature at which they are stored, they can ripen quickly, remaining at their peak of flavor for between 3-5 days. Characteristic flavors include notes of mushrooms or truffle, and grassy or earthy flavors, although these should not eclipse the flavor of the milk and the cheese itself. Examples of Soft-Ripened cheeses include Brie and Camembert style cheeses, American cheeses such as Humboldt Fog, French classics such as St. Andre, Coulommiers or Explorateur.

American Originals
This category defines cheeses recognized by ACS as being uniquely American in their original forms, with a recipe that originated in the Americas. There is no restriction within the category as to milk type, texture, moisture content, method of ripening, or age. Examples include: Monterey Jack, Dry Jack, Brick Cheese, Brick, Muenster, Colby, and Teleme.

American cheesemakers are creative, often developing new, never-before-seen cheeses. Such cheeses may be classified as “American Originals: Original Recipes”, indicating that the cheese has additional unique characteristics based on recipe, texture, milk combination, appearance/rind development, flavor, or the addition of non-dairy ingredients.

International Style
This category of the ACS competition is specifically designed to encompass the many cheeses made within the Americas that are inspired by or based upon established cheeses originating overseas, especially in Europe. For judging purposes, although also of international origin, the competition further breaks out Italian styles, Feta, Hispanic styles, and cheddars as separate categories (details below).

This very broad category is further broken down into defined international styles as well as by classification of milk type. It includes but is not limited to styles based on:

  • Abondance
  • Beaufort
  • Butterkase
  • Caerphilly
  • Dutch (Gouda, Edam, etc. made with all milk type)
  • Emmental types made from cow’s milk and having eye-formation (Swiss, baby Swiss etc.)
  • Gruyere
  • Traditional English cheeses (excluding cheddar and blues) such as Lancashire and Cheshire
  • Juustoleipa
  • Monastic cheeses

Although cheddar originated in England, it is now one of the most widely produced cheeses made throughout the world. As such, cheddar can now be found in many formats and ages, ranging from the most traditional cloth- or bandage-wrapped versions to block cheddars.

The United States produces over three billion pounds of cheddar cheese annually. To produce authentic cheddar in America, The Standards of Identity require that they contain moisture less than 39% and at least 50% fat on a solids basis. For the ACS Judging & Competition, cheddars are further classified by age and milk source(s).

Blue Mold Cheeses
Cheeses in this category are characterized by the presence of Penicillium roqueforti or P. glaucum, which acts as the primary ripening culture. Typically, most blue mold cheeses are defined by internal veined molding. However, for the ACS competition, this category is further classified to include external molding. Some examples of cheeses with internal and veined blue molding include Roquefort, Stilton, Bayley Hazen Blue, Bleu d’Auvergne and Point Reyes Original Blue. Examples of cheeses with external and veined blue molding include Classic Blue Log and Monte Enebro.

Hispanic and Portuguese Style Cheeses
This category is designed to focus on cheeses made using recipes of the Azorean, Brazilian, Central American, Colombian, Cuban, Guatemalan, Hispanic, Latino, Mexican, and Portuguese communities. Examples include Sao Jorge, Cotija, Azeitão, and Serra da Estrela.

Italian Type Cheeses
Italian cheeses vary widely in style and type. This category is further broken down into the following:

  • Pasta filata (pulled- or stretched-curd) style, such as Provolone, Caciocavallo, fresh Mozzarella, and Burrata (fresh mozzarella encasing curds).
  • Hard grating style, including Parmesan, Sardo, Romano.

Feta Cheeses
Feta is a traditional Greek cheese that is soft, easily crumbles, and is brine-cured. Cheeses made using a Feta recipe generally include sheep’s and/or goat’s milk, as well as mixed milks. For categorization and competition purposes, Feta is further categorized by milk type, and may include mixed milk varieties.

Low Fat/ Low Salt Cheeses
The ACS Competition follows these below definitions for this category:

  • Fat-Free: less than 0.5 grams fat per labeled serving size and no added fat or oil
  • Low Fat: maximum 3 grams total fat per serving if serving size is more than 30 grams or 2 tablespoons; and 3 grams of fat or less per 50 grams of product if serving size is less than 30 grams or less than 2 tablespoons.
  • Light or Lite: if less than 50% of calories come from fat, the cheese label must show a 33.3% reduction of calories than referenced amount or 50% reduction in fat. If more than 50% of calories come from fat, the cheese labels must show a minimum of 50% reduction of fat per referenced amount.
  • Reduced Fat: minimum 25% reduction in total fat per referenced amount.

Farmstead Cheeses
This category encompasses cheeses that can be differentiated by their specific production methods – following traditional, smaller-scale farmstead production. These production methods require extra steps not always associated with larger scale commercial production. In addition, farmstead cheesemakers seek to develop unique flavor profiles with their cheeses that would be difficult to emulate on a larger scale. Farmstead cheeses are further categorized based on milk type, aging time, and moisture content.

Smoked Cheeses
Although smoked cheeses can often be classified under additional categories based on their other characteristics, it is worth mentioning them separately. Although smoking cheese was used as a traditional method to preserve it, with the advent of refrigeration, in most cases this is no longer necessary. Instead, the addition of smoke is celebrated as a flavor characteristic in its own right.

There are two different ways that the flavor of smoke can be introduced to a cheese: Natural smoking over wood chips in a smoker or smoke house, or through an artificial smoke “flavor”, often in liquid form, introduced into the cheese. For competition purposes, it is often required that the source of the smoke (i.e. natural and/or smoke flavorings) is cited.

Washed Rind Cheeses
“Washed rind” is used to describe those cheeses that are surface-ripened by washing the cheese throughout the ripening/aging process with brine, beer, wine, brandy, or a mixture of ingredients. This washing results in cheeses developing higher pH levels and lower acidity, high moisture content (above 42%), and a characteristic red- or orange-colored rind, frequently sticky to the touch and possessing a pungent aroma. The flavor profile of many washed rind cheeses is often considerably milder than the smell would suggest.

The interior of these cheeses is most often semi-soft and, sometimes, very creamy.  Washed rind cheeses may be made from both pasteurized and raw milk, depending on the style of the cheese and the cheesemaker producing them.  Cheeses in this category include some tomme-style cheeses, triple-crème, and semi-soft cheeses, similar to Epoisses, Livarot and Taleggio.

Examples of soft-ripened, bacterial surface-ripened cheeses include those in the style of: Alsatian Munster, Chimay, Epoisses, Langres, Limburger, Pont L’Eveque, St. Nectaire, Taleggio, Vacherin Mont d’Or.

Washed rind Alpine-style cheeses which are able to be scraped when warmed and melted without excess free oil release, and which are aged over 45 days, are included in the washed rind classification as Raclette-style cheeses.

While the rinds of many traditional Alpine cheeses such as Beaufort and Comté are also washed with brine or other solutions, these are not typically classified as washed-rind cheeses due to their firm texture and different flavor characteristics, although they may be categorized as such for the purposes of ACS judging.

While the above categories certainly cover a good number of cheese classifications, it is by no means exhaustive. Other ACS Judging & Competition categories are distinguished by milk source, type of culture, or the addition of flavorings, secondary processing, or marination:

Milk source other than cow:


Additional flavoring or processing:


Cultured products:


Method of Coagulation

Cheeses may be categorized by the way in which they are coagulated.

Acid coagulated or lactic cheeses
The precipitation of curds from milk by the addition of acid has been common for many years. Vinegar, acetic acid, citric acid, lemon juice, lactic acid and even hydrochloric acid have been used to produce curds. Examples of acid-produced cheeses include fromage blanc and fresh chevre. These cheeses have a high moisture content of over 50% and shelf life of only a few weeks, which can be extended to a few months if frozen.

Coagulation by acid and heat
When milk, milk-whey blends, or just whey is heated to at least 176°F (80°C) for at least five minutes to completely denature (unfold) the whey proteins and encourage association of whey proteins with casein micelles. Once the milk is at the desired high temperature, acidification is slow with gentle agitation (reducing pH to about 5). The caseins and whey proteins will coagulate together and form curds. The curds produced are small and fragile, and result in cheeses with a 50% moisture content or higher, and have a short shelf life. Heat coagulated ricotta, paneer, and queso blanco are examples of this type of cheese.

Rennet coagulated
Rennet is generic term used to reference enzymes (proteinases) capable of altering casein proteins in a specific way to initiate coagulation. Chymosin is the key enzyme found in animal rennet. Rennets can also be used to separate milk into solid curds used for cheesemaking and liquid whey. Calf rennet is the most widely used in animal rennet in cheesemaking. In addition to chymosin, animal rennet contains other important enzymes such as pepsin and lipase. Other types of rennets include microbial, recombinant, and vegetable rennets. Examples of rennet-produced cheeses include Brie, Cheddar, Gouda, and Brick. Curd is often cooked after cutting to reduce moisture content to produce the desired body texture.

Method of Ripening

Cheese ripening may also be known as cheese curing, maturation, or affinage.

Fresh or Unripened Cheeses are unaged cheeses
These cheeses have a moisture range of 40-80%, and per federal law must be made from pasteurized milk/cream as they are aged less than 60 days.

Surface Mold-Ripened Cheeses
Surface mold ripened cheeses mature from the outside in. While their manufacture begins just as with fresh, unripened cheeses, these mold-ripened cheeses differ in that molds, yeasts, or surface-ripening bacteria are added to the milk. The paste of these cheeses softens based on which of these are added and encouraged by the cheesemaker, with pH rising from the outside of the cheese to its center. The surface ripening results in an increase in pH and moisture levels, and puts these cheese types at greater risk for growing pathogenic bacteria. The moisture contents of these cheeses ranges from 36-58%. Examples include Brie and Camembert.

 Internal Mold-Ripened cheeses
Internal Mold-Ripened cheeses have the addition of mold spores from the Penicillium family to create rich blue veining throughout the cheese. As the mold spores grow, not only do they produce the desired color effect, they create chemical changes within the cheese. P. roqueforti contains lipolytic enzymes that release free fatty acids for the distinct flavor characteristics associated with veined cheeses. The texture of these cheeses will vary from soft to firm depending on fat and moisture content. Moisture content does not exceed 46%. Examples of internal mold-ripened cheeses include blue, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, and Stilton.

Surface Bacteria-Ripened Cheeses
Surface Bacteria-Ripened Cheeses typically have a viscous, red-orange (various shades) smear. The smears are applied to the surface of the cheese and allowed to grow during the maturation process. Soft surface-ripened cheeses are often characterized by a rich aromatic, piquant flavor. Semi-hard smear cheeses are milder, with a pleasant, sweetish flavor. There are a wide variety of smear-ripened cheeses including Tilsiter, Gruyère, Beaufort, Trappist, Munster, Brick and Limburger.

Internal Bacteria-Ripened Cheeses
Internal Bacteria-Ripened cheeses can range from semi-soft to hard grating cheese in texture, thus giving a wide array of fat and moisture content. Eyed cheese is ripened internally as well. These cheeses generally remain stable in pH during aging as well as being lower in moisture. Cheddar, Provolone and Swiss are a few examples of internal bacterial-ripened cheeses.