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The 608 is running out of numbers. But the 3 digits’ brand is likely here to stay.

Starting in September, new phone numbers in south central, southwestern Wisconsin will use area code 353

A beer tap handle decorated with a black and white 608 logo and green hops
A beer tap handle decorated with the 608 Brewing Company logo at their taproom in La Crosse, Wis. Hope Kirwan/WPR

Phil Humphrey started using the name “608 Brewing” when he was still homebrewing beer. Now the owner of 608 Brewing Company and taproom in La Crosse, Humphrey said there wasn’t a lot of creativity behind the name — he just liked the idea of using the area code from where he lived.

“It kind of stuck with me as people knew my beer,” he said. “That was how they knew me in the area and I just rolled with it.”

In addition to selling beer, Humphrey said the name has helped him sell a lot of merchandise, especially to customers visiting from out of town.

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“There’s a lot of people that buy t-shirts or hats or anything when they’re traveling,’” he said. “So they can kind of look back and say they were there. That happens quite a bit.”

A shelf with baseball hats, beer glasses and koozies with the 608 Brewing Company logo
Hats, glasses and other merchandise with the 608 Brewing Company logo. Owner Phil Humphrey says the area code in their name helps his business sell more merchandise to visitors. Hope Kirwan/WPR

But starting next month, 608 will no longer be the only marker of southwestern and south central Wisconsin. New phone numbers in the region will instead use the area code 353 beginning Sept. 15.

Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission announced last year that the 608 area code is expected to run out of assignable prefixes, or the three numbers following the area code, by the beginning of 2024 or sooner. Population experts say the change comes as the 608 region has seen the greatest increase in population over the last two decades, mostly around Madison and its suburbs.

While Humphrey has built his brand on the 608, he said he’s not worried about the new area code. He feels confident that customers recognize his products after five years in business.

“It would almost be more weird if like ‘353’ businesses pop up all of a sudden, because people will be like, ‘What is that?’” Humphrey said. “It’s going to take a little bit before the locals really embrace a new area code or even recognize it, in my opinion.”

Love for local area codes is nothing new for cities in Wisconsin and across the country. For over a decade, Milwaukee residents have celebrated April 14, or 4/14, as Milwaukee Day. Similar celebrations take place in other major cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta.

James Bowie, a sociologist at Northern Arizona University who studies logos, has looked at the way some businesses tap into this love for area codes as part of their branding. He said for many, the three digits have become a way to play up hometown pride to local customers.

It’s kind of this secret handshake,” he said. “A little signal that yes, we’re local, and we represent this kind of local business.

Bowie said a new area code overlay in Wisconsin is unlikely to have an immediate effect on this strategy. Because 608 has been around for more than 60 years, he said businesses who use the numbers as their brand have some security that the identity will live on.

But over time, as more 353 numbers are assigned, Bowie said the 608 brand will likely fade.

“When you have these overlays, it kind of dilutes the geographic power of the area code,” he said. “It’s called an area code because it represents an area. But once you start having more than one area code in the same area, then it doesn’t work quite as well as this marker of identity.”

He said from a historical perspective, the way Americans identify with some area codes is surprising given the fact that they were assigned by early telephone administrators with little thought to a city’s character.

“It’s this interesting thing about people, where they will assign meaning to something as arbitrary as the three-digit area code,” Bowie said.

608 Brewing Company
Glasses filled with coffee beans are on display with the 608 Brewing Company logo. Owner Phil Humphrey says the area code in their name helps his business sell more merchandise to visitors. Hope Kirwan/WPR

Humphrey said his only concern moving forward is making sure his business phones still have the 608 area code.

“We’re opening a second taproom in Holmen, and my wife said we should probably hurry up and try to get a phone number, see if we get a 608 number before the new area code kicks in,” he said.

He said they’re already committed to the area code, so they’re going to run with it as long as people continue to identify with the three numbers.