There are many different ways of categorising cheese, but perhaps the easiest way is to break them down according to their texture and the style of manufacture as follows:
Fresh Cheese - Cheese that is almost ready to eat the moment it is made such as Cottage Cheese, Cream Cheese, Fromage Frais, Ricotta, Mozzarella. They have high moisture content and therefore a relatively short shelf life.
Soft Cheese - Cheese with a very soft texture including Brie, Camembert which do require time to reach maturity and full flavour. Again they have relatively high levels of moisture and need to be eaten within a defined period once sold. On white mould cheeses such as Brie and Camembert the young cheese is sprayed with penicillium candidum to help ripen the cheese from the outside in. An unripe cheese will have a chalky white strip running through the middle of the cheese.
Semi Hard Cheese - As the name suggests, these cheeses sit between being soft and hard. Often they have a rubbery texture such as Edam and will be sold at a relatively young age of a few months. Other examples would include St. Paulin and Port Salut and certain other cheeses where the rinds will be washed with brine, beer, wine or fruit juices to add character to the cheese during the maturation process.
Hard Cheese - Firm - These are cheeses which have been pressed to remove as much of the whey and moisture from the curds as possible to ensure a long keeping product. Cheeses may be matured from anything between 12 weeks in the case of mild Cheddar, up to 2 years or more in the case of vintage Cheddar, Parmesan or Manchego. Other British examples of firm hard cheese will include Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, Derby, Malvern, Worcester, Hereford. Continental varieties include Emmental and Gouda.
Hard Cheese - Crumbly - A category of cheeses well known in the UK as young variants of Cheshire, Caerphilly, Lancashire and Wensleydale all fall into this group. The cheeses are pressed to remove much of the moisture but because they are sold at a relatively young age - typically between 4 and 8 weeks of age - they retain a crumbly texture and a fresh flavour. Older more mature versions of these cheeses will tend to become firmer and may lose their crumbly texture and hence fall into the firm hard cheese category. They will also have a stronger flavour.
Blue Cheese - There are blue cheese variants of many of the cheese listed above. What puts them into the blue cheese category is that penicillium roqueforti - a blue mould - is added to the cheese at various stages in the making process. Sometimes it is added to the milk at the start of the process in other cases it is sprayed onto the curds before being shaped. Normally the cheese will be pierced with stainless steel needles to allow air into the body of the cheese which then activates the blue mould and starts to break down the protein which in turn creates the blue mould. The process is a way of accelerating the normal development of the cheese and means that quite strong tasting cheese is produced within a few months. Blue Stilton is perhaps the best known blue cheese produced in the UK but there are now more than 70 different blue cheeses being produced within the UK. Other notable British examples are Shropshire Blue, Blue Cheshire, Blue Wensleydale, Dovedale, Buxton Blue, Blacksticks Blue and even Blue Leicester! Imported examples include Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Cambozola and Danish Blue.
Blended Cheese - Also known as fruit cheese, herb cheese, cheese with bits or More Than Just Cheese. Though we think of these as modern cheeses it is well known that the Romans routinely blended their cheese with fruit and herbs. High quality hard cheeses are chopped into small pieces and herbs or fruit added and the whole mixed together before being shaped into cylinders or blocks. Most popular examples in the UK are Wensleydale with Cranberry, White Stilton with Apricots, Cheddar with Caramelised Onion, Double Gloucester with Chives and Onion and Lancashire with Garlic.
These categories can apply to any cheese regardless of the animal from which the milk came.
To find out more about the different types click on the links on the right hand side.