FINDING GOOD beer down the Shore in 2011 is a little like finding good beer down the Shore in 1931. "Boardwalk Empire's" Prohibition Agent Van Alden is no longer creeping out the joint, but it still seems like you need to know a secret password to find a decent mug.
That's because drinking at the Shore, and especially along its boardwalks, is still mainly a cheap thrill, from watered-down well drinks to buck-a-bottle lagers. While some casino restaurants offer extensive wine lists, it's a rare bar or restaurant that extends the same service to beer lovers.
So, you either satisfy yourself with the selection from your Shore house fridge, or set your sights a little lower.
Which is not to say there aren't some gems.
The newest is Atlantic City's Boardwalk Beer Garden (Arkansas Avenue, 609-345-BEER), which just opened outside of Caesars across from The Pier.
It's right on the boardwalk, with an outdoor section that is a sunny, prime people-watching (and pigeon-dodging) location. And it's serving a nice selection of locals, including Dogfish Head, Flying Fish and River Horse.
The place doesn't have any of the boardwalk's edge and kitsch, and there's no sign of draft beer. But it's a start and, together with the Trinity Irish Pub and Carvery (1 Atlantic Ocean, 609-345-6900) inside The Pier, it's a fine oasis along the central boardwalk.
If you're looking for unusual high-end brews, though, you'll do no better in this town than Firewaters (Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk, 609-344-6699), a few steps off the boards on the first floor of the Tropicana. While its 50 taps sometimes wander into mediocrity, its 100-plus bottle list always features unusual selections, including Belgian Trappist ale, lambic and imperial stout.
I wish Tun Tavern (2 Miss America Way, 609-347-7800) was another essential stop in the Playground of the World. A couple of blocks off the boardwalk just beyond the outlet shopping district next to the Convention Center, it has the dull, plastic feel of a chain restaurant and a menu to match.
While brewer Tim Kelly seems hamstrung by the owners' insistence on dumbing down the flavors in their basic lineup of ambers and pales, he is capable of fermenting some smart pints. Every time I stop by, I hope his outstanding barleywine is on tap; mostly, I'm disappointed.
On the way to Cape May
Farther south, the scene is even spottier (or in the case of dry-as-a-bone Ocean City, nonexistent).
In Somers Point, where a buck once bought you seven beers at the Anchorage Tavern, you'll do OK at the irritatingly spelled Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro (908 Shore Road, 609-927-2759) and Doc's Place (646 Bay Ave., 609-926-0404). You'll do even better at Circle Liquors (1 MacArthur Blvd., 609-927-2921), which carries the best selection of micros down the Shore.
Meanwhile, the word is that the town's other quality package store, Passion Vines (265 New Road, 609-601-8463), is going to install a four-head growler filler this summer.
In quirky Strathmere, the Deauville Inn (201 Willard Road, 609-263-2080) has a killer deck with a beautiful view of the back bay. But somehow, everyone ends up inside at the bar to watch the game on the big-screen TVs.
There's a bit of a blue-hair feel to the place these days as the younger crowd has moved over to Twisties (232 Bayview Drive, 609-263-2200) for pitchers of Sam Adams and steamers.
Better drink up, because it's a long haul down the Garden State Parkway till you find the next worthy watering hole. Sea Isle City . . . Avalon . . . Stone Harbor . . . Have any of these towns even heard of an IPA? Nope. Keep going till you hit the Wildwoods.
There you'll find two of the Shore's best beer destinations:
_ Good Night Irene's (2708 Pacific Ave., Wildwood, 609-729-3861). On a recent night, one of its 36 taps was pouring Ovila, the Sierra Nevada abbey dubbel that was brewed as a tribute to and fund-raiser for California's Abbey of New Clairvaux. That's serious stuff, readers. Not quite as serious but every bit as fun is Beer Geek Thursday, when they serve 35-cent wings doused with Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale during Quizzo.
_ Fitzpatrick's Crest Tavern (9600 Pacific Ave., Wildwood Crest, 609-522-1200). Figure on a typical Shore menu (fried fish, linguine and mussels, chicken parm) with an atypical shore beer list: 16 fresh taps (Oskar Blues, Lancaster, Rogue, Flying Fish) and what I believe is the lower Jersey Shore's only beer engine with real cask ale.
Make sure you stop by the adjoining package store, you'll want some of those goodies for the beer fridge back home.