Full transparency: I was a little reluctant to write this story. I’ve been working in the cheese industry for 15 years – as a monger, server, and writer – and I feel a little too much comradery with cheesemakers to criticize the fruits of their hard work too harshly. My other concern was about the whole concept of sharp cheddar in the first place. For cheese nerds and professionals, “sharp” can be a tricky term. Customers often seek sharp cheeses but it’s not clear what the term means. The imprecision can breed confusion, and different people think of sharpness differently.
“Sharp doesn’t necessarily align with packaging,” explains Evey Vaughn, a cheesemonger at New Seasons Market in Portland, Oregon. “It greatly muddies the waters when trying to engage customers on the topic.”
Cheese writer Janet Fletcher breaks down sharpness into four components: Glutamic acid, salt, lactic acid, and modern cultures. Even for experts, it’s hard to pin down the flavor components in cheddar and it’s equally hard to define that gorgeous je ne sais quoi of sharp. So what does sharp mean to me? It’s where intensity meets acid. Intensity is simply how powerfully the flavor hits in my mouth. Acid highlights and brightens. Like the acid in lemon or vinegar, it makes your mouth draw into a pucker. It makes you want more. It’s visceral. So for the purposes of this tasting:
Intensity + Acid = SHARPNESS.
Sharp is a great word because I really do think of a sort of knife to your palate and my editor said, ‘we want to talk about those cheeses that feel like they’ll cut your tongue.” As for why that note is so welcome in cheddar, it’s because it balances richness and creates dimension.
PART I — What is Cheddar Cheese?
Cheddar is named after the small village of Cheddar, nestled in Somerset, England. A myth says that sometime in the 12th century, a milkmaid forgot about a pail of milk in one of Cheddar’s labyrinthine caves. When she returned, the milk had transformed into a golden, beautiful cheese. King Henry II declared cheddar the best cheese in England, and colonists brought cheddar to the Americas. When the industrial revolution happened, cheddar came with it – the cheese lends itself to large-scale production and shipping, and so it’s efficient and profitable to make these big, grocery store brands we tasted here.
Cheddar is made in a specific way – it undergoes a “cheddaring” process, the constant stacking and turning of the “loaves” of curds, which helps to remove additional whey (liquid). When the cheddaring is complete, the cheese is ready to mature. Obviously, cheddar is no longer just made in England. For this article, I tasted cheddar from Vermont and Wisconsin, New Zealand, and Wales. Whether artisanal or mass-produced, clothbound or waxed, dyed or pearly white (that orange hue usually comes from annatto, a natural food coloring that doesn’t noticeably affect flavor), or aged for a few months or a few years, cheddar is a favorite for great reason — it’s versatile, delicious, and almost impossible not to love.
PART II — What About Age?
It doesn’t always follow that more age creates a sharper final product. Paul Kindstedt, professor of food science at the University of Vermont and author of Cheese and Culture explains that over time, many of the volatile compounds that create an intensity of flavor will peak and then change. They might gain flavor but lose that bright acidic bite.
It’s a complicated process – flavor, aroma, and texture keep developing with time. As cheese ages, it does lose moisture, which is why more mature cheeses tend to be firm and crumbly. Pro tip: maturing cheese is a careful task (some art, some science), taken on by knowledgeable professionals in environments where humidity, temperature, and microbial growth are precisely monitored. Read: do not try this at home.
PART III — Methodology
My tasting panel involved myself, my husband (a certified barbecue judge and dedicated cheddar fan), and my cousin (a food lover with a great palate who was roped into this when she came to visit). We used four criteria to rank each cheese: texture, sharpness, balance, and overall experience. Here are the top picks:
- Cabot Naturally Aged 5 Year Cheddar Cheese
- Collier’s Extra Mature Cheddar
- Old Croc Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Cabot Naturally Aged 2 Year Cheddar Cheese
- McGadam Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Trader Joe’s New Zealand Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Cabot Naturally Aged 3 Year Cheddar Cheese
- Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Black Creek Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Cabot Vermont Sharp 9 Months
- Kerrygold Aged Cheddar
- Cabot Vermont Extra Sharp 1 Year
- Trader Joe’s Wisconsin Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Trader Joe’s English Coastal Cheddar Cheese
- Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Bowl & Basket New York Extra Sharp Cheddar
- Crystal Farms Wisconsin Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Land O Lakes Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese
- Whole Foods Market 365 Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Hoffman’s Super Sharpf
- Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp White
PART IV — The Ranking
21. Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp White
Kraft Heinz sold Cracker Barrel Cheese Groupe Lactalis (another Lactalis cheese!) in 2021. So, it’s a gigantic brand and it tastes…mass-produced. It’s fine but lacking in personality and pizazz.
The springy texture was a bit off-putting to me. The flavor wasn’t “extra sharp,” as promised, but it was well-rounded and perfectly pleasant.
20. Hoffman’s Super Sharp
Owned by French conglomerate Groupe Lactalis, this cheese came up short in character, depth, and flavor. It tasted of salt and fat – but not of sharp cheddar. “Blah,” we scribbled in our notes.
Hoffman’s Super Sharp is creamy and salty, but not especially sharp or nuanced. It will do in a pinch but I wouldn’t seek it out.
19. Whole Foods Market 365 Sharp Cheddar Cheese
365 is Whole Foods’ everyday brand, and this is an acceptable everyday Cheddar. It won’t blow your socks off, but if your toddler is anything like mine, she will gleefully devour it in its pure and cheese sandwich forms.
We noted that it “fell flat.” We missed the sharpness that the label promised, but it scored high(er) for texture and balance. If it would have been labeled as a mild cheddar, we would have been happy.
18. Land O Lakes Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese
Based in Minnesota, Land O Lakes has operated as a dairy brand for more than a century. It’s a member-owned cooperative, which is cool. (They also swapped out their packaging, which featured an image of an Indigenous woman, for something less divisive a few years ago.)
This felt less carefully balanced than the others, with a not entirely welcome tartness that lingered. A plus: it delivered on sharpness in a big way. Still, we wouldn’t seek this one out.
17. Crystal Farms Wisconsin Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Crystal Farms sources milk from the Midwest and partners with Associated Milk Producers Inc., a dairy farmer-owned cooperative, to make their cheese. It’s a big brand that produces more than 150 varieties of dairy products.
Although this cheese wasn’t especially sharp, it had a well-rounded flavor with lots of depth, plus a great just-a-bit-crumbly texture. The disappointment came from its lackluster punch — which is to say, none at all. After tasting so many flavor-packed cheddars, this one faded into the background.
16. Bowl & Basket New York Extra Sharp Cheddar
The Shop Rite house brand’s extra sharp Cheddar punched above its weight, with spot-on balance and a razor sharpness that had us reaching for more.
“A little spongy, yet surprisingly satisfying,” one taster noted. So, plenty of sharpness. But that weirdly springy texture was off-putting.
15. Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Named for Tillamook, on the northern coast of Oregon, Tillamook’s farmer-owners have been making cheese since 1909. They raise happy, healthy cows – which make excellent milk – which in turn creates tasty cheese.
Not the sharpest, but super balanced and decidedly tasty. The most popular cheese in Tillamook County, Tillamook Extra Sharp is naturally aged from 15 to 24 months, during which time it develops an almost fudgy texture, notes of candied pecans, and the very slightest bit of funk. This is a solid cheese choice, but if you’re after sharpness, you’ll be disappointed.
14. Trader Joe’s English Coastal Cheddar Cheese
Trader Joe’s imports this cheese from between the rolling Dorset Downs and the craggy Jurassic Coast. It’s the only English Cheddar we tasted, so I had high expectations – after all, it’s made in the original land of Cheddar. We liked it, we just didn’t fall in love.
The cheese has a hazelnutty flavor and a tangy finish. It’s not as sharp as we hoped for, but still a very flavorful cheese. It won points for its smooth but crumbly texture. This was the only cheddar we tasted from England, the birthplace of cheddar, and so I had higher hopes. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t anything special.
13. Trader Joe’s Wisconsin Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Aged for a minimum of nine months, this domestic Trader Joe’s find is straightforward and hard to argue with. It scored just the tiniest bit above their English Coastal Cheddar for its satisfying sharpness that felt like razors in our mouth (in the best possible way).
We loved the sharp, zingy bite. The texture was drier and more brittle than others. It was perfectly acceptable but not especially distinguished or exciting on the palate.
12. Cabot Vermont Extra Sharp 1 Year
Our least high-scoring Cabot cheese was still solidly impressive. This Cabot extra sharp just wasn’t especially sharp. It had a creamy, slightly sticky moistness and a subtle sweetness.
With a smooth finish and a feisty tang, this cheese didn’t wow us with its sharpness. It had a powerful flavorful profile on the palate but lacked that acid zing.
11. Kerrygold Aged Cheddar
Ireland’s climate is perfect for growing grass – good news for cows, and good news for Kerrygold, who turns their milk into premium butter and cheese. Made with the highest standards of animal welfare, their Aged Cheddar is a pasteurized, grass-fed cow’s milk cheese that is aged for one year and undergoes a stringent grading process as it matures.
With rounded, full flavor with a distinctive creamy taste, everyone liked this cheese. That said, it didn’t necessarily stand out. It wasn’t quite as sharp as other contenders, but it scored high for balance and texture.
10. Cabot Vermont Sharp 9 Months
Another quality find from the folks at Cabot. Aged for 9 months, this is more of an everyday Cheddar than a special occasion cheddar. It won’t blow your mind, but it will satisfy your craving.
The acid and tang are what make Cabot Vermont Sharp 9 Months shine. It has a creamy smoothness and a great mouthfeel that makes this an ideal melting cheddar. (Interesting that this scored higher for us than the 1 year. More age doesn’t mean better — it’s a little more complicated than that. Maybe it helps to think of more age = different.)
9. Black Creek Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
The village of Black Creek, in northeastern Wisconsin, was founded in 1862. Black Creek’s cows graze on these nutrient-rich grasses producing fresh, creamy milk – the start of great cheese.
This cheese felt richer and creamier than many, with aromas of toasted walnuts. It has a firm, crumbly texture perfect for breaking into pieces over a crisp salad. A classic snackable, crowd-pleasing sharp cheddar experience.
8. Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar Cheese
If buying organic is important to you, Organic Valley’s award-winning Raw Sharp Cheddar is a solid choice. It’s made with milk from pasture-raised cows without GMOs, and it’s classically delicious.
Aged for at least six months, the cheese’s serious sharpness give way to a creamy finish. It tasted more deeply savory than many of the other cheeses we tried, with roasty brown butter notes. I was a little surprised to see this so high on our list.
7. Cabot Naturally Aged 3 Year Cheddar Cheese
Cabot’s expert cheese graders hand-select this cheddar for the complex flavor and distinct sharpness that comes with slow aging. 36 months of careful maturing coaxes out a balance of smoothness and bite.
This cheese starts off so sharp it made my tongue all tingly. Our tasters’ agreed that the sharpness was spot-on; the only flaw was that it was a bit overpowering. But if you’re all about “make it as sharp as it gets!” you’ll be thrilled.
6. Trader Joe’s New Zealand Sharp Cheddar Cheese
In the lush hills of the New Zealand countryside, cows graze on grass and produce rich, creamy milk that will become this craveable cheddar. It’s aged for six to twelve months and becomes Trader Joe’s private label goodness.
The savory depth was a highlight of this cheese – it has notes of bone broth and umami richness. With an approachable sharpness and a full-flavored profile, I’ll be picking up a piece of this any time I make a Trader Joe’s trip.
5. McCadam Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
William McCadam started making cheese in Heuvelton, New York in 1876. During the Great Depression, the facility moved to Chateaugay, New York, where they continue to transform the milk of small Northeast family farmers into award-winning cheese in the Adirondacks. The company is a cooperative of 588 dairy families.
This had the make-my-mouth-water, cut-my-tongue sharpness I crave. It’s strong, and it’s easy to see how this won first place in the 2022 New York State Fair Cheese Contest.
4. Cabot Naturally Aged 2 Year Cheddar Cheese
Another winner from Cabot. Their experts mature the cheese for 24 months until it reaches peak complexity. It’s surprisingly creamy, zippy, and sharp sharp sharp without hitting you over the head.
This delivered beautifully on that classic cheddar flavor. Its creamier texture makes it ideal for melting on burgers and grilled cheese, and it packs a bright punch that is balanced by a brothy richness.
3. Old Croc Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Plenty of rainfall, fertile soil, and lush, green pastures make Australia a naturally awesome place for dairy farming and cheesemaking. Old Croc’s cheeses are non-GMO and crafted with Australian milk from grass-fed cows. Their Extra Sharp White Cheddar is aged for at least 18 months for a full, robust flavor (not for the faint of heart).
We found this to be firm and crumbly with a just-a-bit granular texture. It received a perfect score for sharpness, and it had that more-ish bite characteristic of the winning sharp wedges. This cheese sort of punches you in the face…and we like it.
2. Collier’s Extra Mature Cheddar
Collier’s is inspired by Welsh coal miners who worked in harsh, dangerous conditions. A lunch with cheddar was a highlight of the day, so Collier’s seeks to be outstanding. The cheese is made in Wales with a secret recipe and matured for about 20 months to create its signature powerful punch.
We noticed this cheese felt “bright” and “alive.” We kept returning to its big, punchy flavor and slightly crumbly texture. It strikes a balance between savory and slightly sweet, with a slow release and a long, deep character.
1. Cabot Naturally Aged 5-Year Cheddar Cheese
Cabot has been crafting cheese for more than a hundred years in Vermont, and they call their 5 Year Cheddar “the very pinnacle of cheddar craftsmanship.” Cabot Creamery is a cooperative of family farms, and they’re both real-deal cheesemakers and make widely available, accessible products you can find at your local store.
Puckery, powerful, and well-rounded, this cheese stood out. Its complexity felt special – savory and sweet, rich and smooth, bold and balanced. We loved how the flavor lingered and made us want more (even after tasting…a lot of cheddar).
PART V — Final Thoughts
Cheddar is beautifully snackable – apples and crackers optional – but even our least favorite would be perfectly tasty melted atop a bowl of chili or sliced into a sandwich.
Another note: We didn’t take price into account in our grading, and prices can vary widely.
If you want to go down a cheddar rabbit hole, I hope you explore artisanal varieties, too, like Cellars At Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont and Quicke’s Mature Cheddar, a spectacular example of English cheddar. You’ll pay more for these, but they are absolutely worth seeking and savoring.
Whatever cheddar cheese you choose, break out the chutney, a glass of Malbec, or a crisp IPA. Melt away over potatoes and shave into pear and arugula salads. Here’s to the best sharp cheddars and all their joyful and delicious possibilities!