BELHAVEN owner Greene King reported a strong festive sales as more people ate out at Christmas, viewing their local pub as a neutral venue to avoid family squabbles.

Chief executive Rooney Anand also asserted that the company has a greater claim to be making "real beer" than an army of American "craft" brewers exporting to the UK.

Suffolk-based Greene King said like-for-like sales at its directly managed estate were up 2.8% year-on-year in the six weeks to January 6.

It was boosted by a 23% rise in sales of Christmas dinners to 448,000 in December.

As 85% of its pubs stayed open for Christmas Day, sales on that day amounted to £2.7 million, up 6.8%,

Mr Anand said eating out on Christmas had become increasingly popular over the past three years. "People are saying 'we cannot do it better ourselves'," he said. "Also, in some cases, it removes debate about where they are having it. It is a neutral location."

The company sold 56 tonnes of turkey over the festive period, pus 42 tonnes of sprouts and 15 tonnes of Christmas pudding.

The performance takes sales growth for the 36 weeks to January 6 to 3.7%, including a 4.1% rise in food sales.

This suggests a slowing in improvement. But Greene King, which operates about 2300 pubs, restaurants and hotels UK-wide, pointed to 8.8% growth in the comparative period last year and said that performance earlier in 2012 was inflated by events such as the Queen's jubilee.

Greene King didn't provide a breakdown of the performance of its estate in Scotland, which consists of more than 300 pubs, one-third of which are managed directly, as a result of its acquisition of Belhaven in 2005.

It said sales of its leading beer brands including Belhaven Best, Greene King IPA and Old Speckled Hen were ahead of last year thanks to promotional efforts.

Overall core own-brewed volume was 2% down over the 36-week period, against a UK ale market that contracted by 4.2%.

A challenge to the established British brewing industry has been laid down by US craft brewers, which usually produce on a small scale, and have been successful in selling highly hopped pale beers to UK consumers.

They have been joined by a new breed of British brewers such as Fraserburgh's BrewDog and Harviestoun of Clackmannanshire producing boldly flavoured beers.

"There is a lot of interest in craft beer and it is something we are looking at," Mr Anand acknowledged but he maintained that Greene King has a strong portfolio and that its output can claim craft credentials: "It is not industrial beer. It is real beer, probably more so than many of the American craft beers that are long-life beers, some of which are contract packed for them," he said.

Greene King is seeing rising interest in blonde ales, such as its Old Golden Hen and IPA Gold beers, which Mr Anand said acted as a gateway for some drinkers between lager and ale.

Greene King said it did not expect conditions for UK consumers to improve during 2013. Simon French, analyst at Panmure Gordon, said: "We think the group is well placed to participate in industry M&A (mergers and acquisitions)."

Greene King's shares rose 2.50p, or 0.39%, to 651p.