HP is the highest-selling brown sauce in Britain and Canada. A1 has higher sales in the United States and Japan. Yorkshire Relish retains popularity in Ireland. OK sauce remains popular in China. In Japan they have their own brown sauce inspired by the English version called tonkatsu sauce.
Arguably 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; almost certainly informed the earliest brown sauces.
The great celebrity chef of the early Victorian period, Alexis Soyer (1810 – 1858), formulated an early brown sauce, which was manufactured by Crosse & Blackwell from the late 1840s. His Sauce Succulente was described as, “thick, pulpy and of a reddish-brown colour. It contains vinegar, a considerable quantity of tomato, wheat flour, shallots, garlic, redcurrant jelly and several herbs”.
By the early 1850s the brown sauce market had been established. The products tended to include tomatoes, garlic, shallots, mushroom and walnut ketchup, raisins, tamarind, soybean, herbs, spices, and salt. Treacle and caramel were used for colour, and flour was used as a thickening agent. Some contained anchovies.
Brown sauce became popular as a byproduct of industrialisation. Meat that was imported from the country to the towns and cities was up to three days old, and brown sauce improved its flavour.
Henderson Brand introduced A1 sauce in 1862. The sauce contained tomatoes, raisins and orange marmalade.
Brand’s nephew George Mason introduced an imitation of A1 called OK in 1880. OK was thicker, and included more fruit, including mangoes and apples.
HP sauce was introduced 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.
HP, A1 and OK were all acquired by large conglomerates in the 1960s. 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.
Brown sauce was highly regionalised in Britain as late as the 1970s, 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.
From the 1970s the supermarkets streamlined their product offerings, usually focussing on the market leader and an own-label brown sauce.