THE explosive growth in craft brewing has seen beer fans become business owners from Shetland to Stranraer and everywhere in between.

Scotland, whose best known drinks were once whisky, Irn Bru and Tennents, now boasts more than 130 craft breweries with international accolades as ale fans turn a passion for that amber nectar into a full-time job.

The sector’s become bound up with tourism, with visits to beer plants now part of the holiday itinerary for many.

But holidays have become a far-off possibility as the pandemic rages, pubs and restaurants are shut and Covid only knows when the taps will start flowing again.

So has coronavirus taken the fizz out of the sector?

The Sunday National spoke with some of the entrepreneurs who’ve sunk their fortunes into pints to find out.

READ MORE: Here are six Scottish craft beers you should try

Commercial brewing has been on the go in Scotland since the 1700s and is now worth an estimated £500 million-plus in turnover each year, supporting around 8500 jobs in our cities, towns and villages.

Unlike some sectors, where activity is concentrated in metropolitan areas, brewing takes place everywhere and anywhere. And that means a contraction in the sector could cost communities big.

In a strategy drawn up pre-pandemic, industry bodies hoped to grow the sector’s value to £1 billion by 2030 and increase the workforce in both urban and rural areas.

Despite the turbulence of 2020, Moray’s WooHa Brewing is managing to do just that. The Moray firm, based near Kinloss, has come through the last nine months in a better position than many of its competitors thanks to an export-focused business model and impressive infrastructure that sees it do its bottling in-house.

While other producers have lost out on sales as their beers waited at over-stretched bottling plants for their turn in the queue, WooHa’s have continued to come off the line and go into export pallets bound for China, Russia, Sweden – countries where the on-trade has been off for less time than the UK.

WooHa was founded just over five years ago with just two products, the company, founded by virologist Heather McDonald, now has nine and expects to scale-up its production to 88,000 hectolitres by June 2023 to meet the growth McDonald has in her sights. That’s despite her concerns that it might take twice or three times as long to get consignments to customers due to extra layers of bureaucracy.

READ MORE: Scottish food and drinks exporters to the EU face losing millions over Brexit

“We have always targeted growth because I have always targeted export,” she says.

“It’s been an interesting year. 2020 has been about picking your battles. We had a lot of success in the US, but we’ve backed off that now because so many of the markets have been absolutely decimated. Brexit is now going to create red tape and more work and make the whole thing much more difficult.

“But my personal motto is ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. I don’t agree with Brexit, end of, I think it’s a ridiculous decision and it’s created a lot of barriers but we will have to find a way to work around them.”

Bottle production at the WooHa plant went up 400% year-on-year from 2019-20. It’s something McDonald, who has a masters in finance and investment management, does not take for granted. She says she’s “isolated” geographically from many similar operators and hasn’t had too many conversations with other owners about trade, and that’s deliberate – she knows many are struggling while her business flourishes. They’re not in the same barrel.

“Without our bottling line I probably would have closed the business,” she concedes – it’s been that important.

“Brewing is not the most profitable of industries. A lot of breweries are run down to the wire anyway in good times. There will be a lot of breweries that were close to the edge anyway. It doesn’t take much to cause real problems.”

The National:

Mark Hazell had pivoted his award-winning business Jaw Brew shortly before the health crisis hit, moving from Hillington near Glasgow to Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire and opening a pub in an ideal location next to the local train station.

Hailed as one of Scotland’s smallest bars, it has a capacity of just 28 and this was reduced to just 14 during the short period when the area’s venues were allowed to welcome punters again.

Covid, Hazell says, has “been a disaster”. Mid-March saw the “best weekend ever” for online orders as local people sought deliveries of local produce.

But, dependent on commercial bottling plants, Hazell – a former hobbyist – has lost out on sales as larger players are catered to first. That’s cost not only small sales, but a big opportunity with a major supermarket.

“As soon as the pubs were shut, any brewery that could sent their beer to be bottled. Tiny breweries like me get shunted to the back of the queue,” he says.

“I’ve had to wait months for batches before. A batch that’s been there since before Christmas and could have sold is still sitting waiting its turn to be bottled. I’m not alone in that. There are no priority clauses and we’re in no position to demand them.

“We had a bit of a boost in December, but January and February is traditionally really quiet and I’m looking at practically zero sales. Who knows when we are going to open up again?

“Some weeks we’re not brewing at all.

However, there’s hope through Bardowie Gin after Hazell and wife Alison diversified into spirits, which can be readied for sale at the company’s premises. “The drum I keep banging on is for people to be aware of where their beer comes from,” Hazell says.

“The big companies are all owned from overseas. Buying from them might be helping to keep a few jobs but the money is going out of Scotland and there’s perfectly good Scottish produce.

“It’s an extension of ‘shop local’ – help not only your shop in your village but also the Scottish farmers and fishermen and all of the producers. If you’re buying Scottish, you’re helping families and businesses here.”

The National:

Colin Wilson, of hop extract supplier Totally Natural Solutions, says he’s seeing “a lot of what were previously very successful Scottish breweries in an incredible amount of pain”.

“They are family-owned businesses, people have put everything into the pot and suddenly they are pressured. It’s not to do with things they can control.”

The Scots expert is seeking to move his multi-million-pound turnover firm from Kent to Scotland and supplies key players in Edinburgh, Dundee, Ellon and Glasgow.

Sales here are “significantly down”, despite exports to Australia and Brazil. But Wilson, whose background is in pharmaceuticals, is focused on solutions and agrees the public can play a part. “It’s very difficult for brewers,” he says. “For some of these guys it’s literally a tap house with an eatery. We’re actually that same mentality, we’re a lifestyle business as well.

“You can buy all your books from Amazon or go and support local bookshops – it’s exactly the same with brewing.

“In the 70s, it was lager in Scotland. Now there’s been a culture shift and people are more educated thanks to craft brewers. How boring would it be without them?”