Cheshire was the most popular cheese on the market in the late 18th century. In 1758 the Royal Navy ordered that ships be stocked with Cheshire and Gloucester cheeses. By 1823, Cheshire cheese production was estimated at 10,000 tonnes per year.
Until the late 19th century, the different varieties of Cheshire cheeses were aged to a sufficient level of hardness to withstand the rigours of transport (by horse and cart, and later by boat) to London for sale. Younger, fresher, crumbly cheese that required shorter storage – similar to the Cheshire cheese of today - began to gain popularity towards the end of the 19th century, particularly in the industrial areas in the North and the Midlands. It was a cheaper cheese to make as it required less storage.
Sales of Cheshire cheese peaked at around 40,000 tonnes in 1960, subsequently declining as the range of cheeses available in the UK grew considerably. Cheshire cheese remains the UK’s largest-selling crumbly cheese, with sales of around 6,500 tonnes per year.
The county remains an important centre for cheese, and, in the Nantwich International Cheese Show, it has the most important cheese event in the UK.
Cheshire cheese comes in three varieties: red, white and blue. The original plain white version accounts for the majority of production. "Red" Cheshire, coloured with annatto to a shade of deep orange, was developed in the hills of North Wales and sold to travellers on the road to Holyhead. This trade was so successful that the travellers came to believe that all Cheshire cheese was orange, and producers in its home county were obliged to dye their cheese in order to match the expectations of the market.
Blue Cheshire has blue veins like Stilton or Shropshire blue, but is less creamy than Stilton and is not dyed orange as Shropshire Blue is. It has a long history, but production ceased in the late 1980s. Recently it has been revived by Joseph Heler cheese. and the Bourne family of Malpas.
Cheshire cheese is considered by some to be a variety of Cheddar cheese, although Cheshire cheese is not aged as long as most cheddars and has a very different texture. Others refer to a Cheshire family of cheeses, a distinct group that includes other crumbly cheeses from the North of England such as Wensleydale and Lancashire cheese.