Once it was seen as the preserve of bearded men in big woolly sweaters stretched over beer-bellies the size of medicine balls, propping up dated bars and talking of strange concepts such as “hops” and “malt” and “International Bitterness Units”.

But nowadays real ale is seriously cool – and Scotland is at the vanguard of this burgeoning craft.

This week, an army of brewers from north of the Border is heading south to the Great British Winter Beer Festival in Nortfolk to fight for the title of Champion Winter Beer of Britain.

It’s an accolade that has evaded Scottish breweries for more than a decade, but with the country’s reputation for brewing quality and innovation growing almost by the day, it’s only be a matter of time until the coveted award comes back north.

Scotland is now home to more than 130 breweries, ranging from the Wellpark behemoth in Glasgow where Tennent’s is brewed to tiny breweries on Hebridean islands such as Eigg and Colonsay.

Scottish breweries are flourishing and experiencing a period of record growth, and the beers they produce now grace the menus of the smartest bars and most exclusive restaurants, as well as finding their way on to supermarket shelves.

At the start of the century it was a very different picture. Scotland was home to 20 breweries, itself a big improvement on the 1970s when there were 11 breweries operating. In 2010 that number had reached 46, tripling in the past eight years – the vast bulk of these breweries fall into the microbrewery category with a turnover of less than £1million.

Scotland’s brewing boom has also brought significant economic benefit, with more than 1500 directly employed in the sector, according to three-year-old figures from the Scottish Government. That number has certainly since increased, with a likely rise in related businesses, such as creative agencies, logistics and export firms, too.

Caroline Wengel, Business Development Manager for the government-backed Brewers Association of Scotland (TBAS), said beer was now the UK’s third largest food and drink export [after Scotch and salmon]. She added: “Our craft brewing industry’s success story has been a combination of dedication, innovation and collaboration, resulting in opportunities for Scottish companies to produce a wide range of exceptional quality, distinctive products that are now enjoyed across the UK and exported all over the world. Scotland’s brewing industry is flourishing.”

It was a view shared by Richard McLelland, Director of Sales and Marketing at Williams Brothers, one of country’s best-known brewers. He said: “This is a great time for Scottish brewing, but we’ve a long way to go and certainly not yet peaked.”

Mr McLelland also said Williams’ strongest exports had been its Scottish-branded products, such as its Heather ale, Fraoch, adding that the global recognition of “Scotland the Brand” was a significant boost across the sector. He said: “Scottish brewing has both benefited from and contributed to the provenance of Scottish food and drink.”

Shannon McFarlane at Tempest Brewing Co agreed the provenance of Scottish food and drink played a critical role in the demand for Scottish beer, as well as the industry’s many “hugely talented and passionate” brewers, many of whom were trained at Heriot-Watt’s acclaimed International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) in Edinburgh.

“I’d say we’re at the start of a golden era for Scottish brewing, particularly as some of the amazing smaller Scottish breweries begin to access international markets. I think this is just the beginning.”

Ms McFarlane said exports at Tempest accounted for 30% of sales, and that Tempest had recently been included in a list of the world’s best 100 breweries, compiled by global review site, Ratebeer. “I think we’re going to see more Scottish breweries on that list soon,” she said.

“The provenance of Scottish food and drink is certainly a positive factor in the growth in export sales,” agreed Chris Miller, Director of the Craft Beer Clan of Scotland, an export firm that represents about 60 craft brewers and distillers. “It raises the profile of Scottish products, and our growing exports reflect that. Last year we exported more than a million bottles of Scottish craft beer.”

Mr Miller, who is in Dubai showcasing Scottish beer and spirits at the Gulfood trade show, said although demand is growing, many of the smaller breweries require additional support to enable them to access new markets. “The demand is there,” he said, “but not all breweries have the capacity yet.”

He added: “What is also true is that I am increasingly meeting brewmasters in other countries who have trained at the ICBD at Heriot-Watt. So as well as beer, Scotland is exporting its brewing and distilling expertise. I think these new brewers, Scottish-trained, are probably also contributing to the greater appreciation of Scottish beer.”

Bruce Smith, Technical Manager at Innis & Gunn, itself a significant beer exporter, graduated from the Heriot-Watt course in 2013. The course has doubled in size in the past few years, with foreign students filling the bulk of the contingent. “We had people from the US, Canada, India, Japan and China,” said Mr Smith. “I think that has probably boosted the reputation of Scotland as a brewing nation. I think they saw what was happening with craft beer in Scotland and took that with them.”