Brown sauce was the last bastion of regionalism in British supermarkets until the re-emergence of local food from the 1990s.
In Britain and Canada, HP is the highest selling brown sauce. In the US, A1 sauce has higher sales. In Ireland, Yorkshire Relish retains popularity. OK sauce remains popular in China. In Japan they have their own brown sauce inspired by the English version called tonkatsu sauce.
The first sauce to gain nationwide distribution in Britain was John Burgess & Son’s Essence of Anchovies, a fish sauce.
The ur-type brown sauce was Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. We don’t think of it as a brown sauce today, but its ingredients; molasses, vinegar, citrus fruits, tamarind, and its taste; sweet, bitter, savoury, tangy, spicy; undoubtedly informed the earliest brown sauces.
Goodall, Backhouse & Co introduced their Yorkshire Relish in the 1850s. Theirs was a fruitier version of Worcestershire, which removed the anchovy element. From the late nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, its keen pricing ensured that it was the highest selling sauce in the world.
In 1862 Henderson Brand introduced A1, the first thick brown sauce, thus inventing the category as we know it today. The sauce contained tomatoes, raisins and orange marmalade. In 1880 Brand’s nephew George Mason introduced an imitation of A1 called OK, which added more fruit, including dates, apple and mango, and was thicker.
The most successful brown sauce, HP, was a relative latecomer, launched in 1889. It is similar to A1 but thicker, and contains tamarind. Other ingredients in the original recipe include garlic, shallots, ground mace, tomato purée, cayenne pepper, ground ginger, raisins, flour, salt and malt vinegar.
In the 1960s, HP, A1 and OK were all acquired by large conglomerates. HP was already the highest selling brown sauce in Britain by this time. However its acquisition by Imperial Tobacco, one of the largest companies in the world, saw investment in new machinery at its factories and a huge increase in marketing spend. Large competitors including Rank Hovis McDougall and Colman’s could not compete with Imperial’s massive firepower, and one by one HP’s competitors faded away.
As late as the 1970s, brown sauce was highly regionalised, with HP the only national player. Daddies was strong in the South West, Fletcher’s was strong in the West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, while Heinz Ideal Sauce and Hammonds Chop Sauce were strong in the North Riding. OK sauce had a large share of the London market.
But the supermarkets grew in popularity, and reduced their lines. Now we just have HP or Daddies (both owned by Heinz) or low-quality supermarket own label as the only brown sauces. Some supermarkets carry the upmarket Wilkins of Tiptree brown sauce.