What Is HP Sauce? The Sticky History Behind the UK’s Favorite Brown Sauce

HP sauce "You've got to admire their Sauce" 1982 TV Commercial
HP sauce "You've got to admire their Sauce" 1982 TV Commercial / Mackenzie Rough

When you think about food in the UK, one of the first things that probably comes to mind is how, well, brown everything is. It might seem odd to Americans, but that isn't an accident: Although the UK is known for its meaty dishes, the color's prevalence in British cuisine also speaks to the nation's enduring love affair with brown sauces. And in the realm of brown sauces, HP Sauce reigns supreme.

The Disputed Origins of HP Sauce

An ad for HP Sauce from 1954.
An ad for HP Sauce from 1954. / Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fans of HP Sauce liken it to a flavor bomb: It's a little sweet, just a tad bit spicy, and undeniably savory. Yet the roots of this quintessentially British condiment are debatable. According to the company, the original recipe was developed by Frederick Gibson Garton, a grocer from Nottingham, England. It's said that he created the first batch inside his pickling factory at 47 Sandon Street in New Basford sometime in the 1890s (although other sources place it as early as 1884) by blending tomatoes, dates, molasses, rye flour, tamarind, and other spices with malt vinegar and spirits vinegar to create its robust flavor and texture.

When Garton trademarked the bottled condiment, he initially dubbed it "The Banquet Sauce." According to legend, when he learned that it was being served at a restaurant located within the Houses of Parliament, he renamed it "Garton’s HP Sauce" in 1895 as tribute, with the "HP" standing for "Houses of Parliament."

But there's more than one backstory for how this brown sauce came to be. Another theory claims the condiment was initially made by David Hoe, a man from the village of Bottesford, Leicestershire, back in the 1840s and '50s. It’s speculated that he later sold the recipe to Garton, who subsequently claimed it as his own invention. Yet another story claims a man named Harry Palmer created the condiment in the 1880s and sold it as Harry Palmer’s Famous Epsom Sauce. But Palmer, a gambling addict, would eventually sell the recipe to Garton to cover his mounting debts. In this version, Garton kept "HP" in the name as an ode to the sauce’s originator. (This version of the tale has been heavily disputed.)

What we do know is that by 1903 Garton had run into money problems, which forced him to sell his trademark and recipe to Edwin Samson Moore, the founder of the Midlands Vinegar Company, a Birmingham-based vinegar malting factory, for £150 (worth about £19,000, or $26,000 USD, in today’s currency, adjusted for inflation). The new owners re-launched the sauce, removing Garton’s name but retaining the "HP" and adding the now-iconic lithograph image of the Houses of Parliament on the label, with Victoria Tower and Big Ben featured prominently.

The Cultural Significance of HP Sauce

HP Sauce was—and still is—at common sight around many breakfast tables.
HP Sauce was—and still is—at common sight around many breakfast tables. / Fox Photos/Getty Images

During food shortages caused by World War I and later World War II, HP Sauce was marketed as a way to give a little oomph to leftovers and inferior cuts of meat, making it a fixture on dinner tables throughout the middle of the 20th century. And it wasn't enough that the sauce had a place in cupboards all over the nation—it soon started popping up in all corners of British culture. In 1940, John Betjeman—later named poet laureate of the UK from 1972 until his death in 1984—paid homage to the condiment in the poem "Lake District": "For me the plunge, the lake and limbs combine/I pledge her in non-alcoholic wine/And give the H.P. Sauce another shake."

Then in the 1960s and '70s, it would famously take on the nickname "Wilson’s gravy" after Mary Wilson, a poet and the wife of then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson, told The Sunday Times, "If Harold has a fault, it is that he will drown everything with HP Sauce." It was PR gold for both Wilson and the brand itself. According to Prospect magazine, it was considered a sign that Wilson—a member of the UK Labour party—could identify with the nation's working class, a boon to any politician during election season.

With success, though, comes imitators, and a string of similar sauces hoping to cut into HP's market would hit shelves over the years, the most famous of which is Daddies. Originally called Daddies Favourite when it launched in 1904, this tangy doppelgänger was available at a cheaper price to capitalize on the public’s burgeoning interest in brown sauces. Another rival, OK Sauce, was produced sometime in the late 19th century (it might have even predated HP Sauce) at a London-based factory known as Chelsea Works, but it never reached the same level of popularity, despite winning a gold medal at the 1911 Festival of Empire exhibition. Like both Daddies and HP, it's still available to this day, although it’s mainly found in UK-based Chinese markets.

HP Sauce Evolves In The Modern Era

"Keep HP British" was a rallying cry for many when the sauce's production moved from Birmingham, England, to Holland in 2006.
"Keep HP British" was a rallying cry for many when the sauce's production moved from Birmingham, England, to Holland in 2006. / Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

To keep up with changing tastes and diversifying palates, HP Sauce has occasionally introduced new spins on its tried-and-true formula, starting with 1969's HP Fruity, a concoction that added oranges and mango chutney to the original tomato-and-malt-vinegar base. This variation was soon joined by HP BBQ Sauce, HP Pepper, and HP Reduced Salt & Sugar, a health-conscious take on the traditional recipe that was formulated in accordance with nutrition guidelines released by the UK government.

As of 2021, an estimated 28 million bottles of HP Sauce are consumed every year, according to the company, which says a lot about the condiment’s continued appeal. Over the last century, however, ownership of the brand has been far from enduring: It was acquired by Groupe Danone SA, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, in 1998, and was purchased by the Heinz Company in 2005 for £470 million ($855 million USD).

At the time of the Heinz acquisition, HP Sauce was still manufactured in the Aston neighborhood of Birmingham, where the Midlands Vinegar Company was based. After taking over, Heinz closed the historic Aston plant and moved manufacturing to Holland, a controversial turn that led to public backlash, including a 2006 protest and short-lived boycott of Heinz products in the UK.

Although the iconic British brand is technically made in Holland now, it still accounts for about three-quarters of the brown sauce market in the UK, according to The Guardian. A 2016 survey revealed that HP Sauce was the most popular brand among UK citizens who voted to leave the European Union (EU). And while Brexit doesn’t seem to have impacted the brown sauce’s availability, it did prompt a 21 percent price hike.

How To Use HP Sauce

HP Sauce is comparable to A1 Sauce, a condiment that’s popular in the U.S., and which is most often used on steaks or burgers. You can use HP Sauce in a similar way, yet it’s versatile enough to be integrated into a variety of other well-known British recipes, too.

Sausage sandwiches are a popular meal in the UK, and HP Sauce is frequently used to add more character to each bite. Cottage pie (alternately known as Shepherd’s pie) is another comfort-food dish where HP Sauce can make a big difference, especially if you mix it into each layer of ground beef, carrots, onions, and potatoes, so the flavor seeps into everything and gives each ingredient a little something extra. You can even add it to Bolognese sauce to put a new spin on an ordinary bowl of spaghetti.

If you’re enjoying a traditional English breakfast complete with sausage, bacon, fried eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, and toast, a splash of this brown condiment could be the perfect finishing touch—just try to avoid getting it in your tea (perhaps the only iconic British culinary treat you should avoid mixing with HP).

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